By WANG RU and WANG KAIHAO (China Daily) 10:26, March 17, 2023
Grand chapter of history on display at renovated Beijing complex
At the end of 2021, a group of elderly residents living near the centuries-old Nanchizi Street close to the Forbidden City in Beijing was invited to visit a stone-built complex near their homes.
The complex had long been shrouded in mystery, with numerous passersby stopping to peek through a crack in its front gate to glimpse the architectural splendors within.
For nearly 500 years, the Huangshicheng complex stood quietly to the east of the Forbidden City — China's imperial palace from 1420 to 1911, which is now also known as the Palace Museum. Huangshicheng translates as "the archives that hold royal history".
Wu Huanliang, a scholar at the First Historical Archives of China, which manages the complex, said, "When these seniors arrived in the courtyard at the complex, they were excited. They said they had lived alongside the complex for a long time, but had never been able to visit it. This is a good way to reconnect history with present-day life."
In 2021, the north courtyard at Huangshicheng — which stored archival material in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties — opened to the public after renovation work. The south courtyard, which is also being renovated, is expected to follow suit soon.
A grand chapter of history at risk of being overshadowed by the Forbidden City is now finally on view to visitors.
In 1534, Emperor Jiajing (1507-67) decided to build a stone complex to house imperial files, fearing they might be destroyed by fire in the wooden buildings of the Forbidden City.
It took two years to complete the complex, which initially comprised the main palace, east and west side halls, and a gate. A pavilion was added next to the main palace during the reign of Emperor Jiaqing (1796-1820) to house a tablet bearing words written by him recounting refurbishment work carried out to the complex during his reign.
Wu said the complex also features nine glazed statues of mythical creatures on the rooftop of the main palace.
"The number of statues denotes the status of this building. Huangshicheng has nine statues, second only to those of Taihedian, or the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the biggest palace in the Forbidden City, where emperors held grand ceremonies," Wu added.
As a symbolic ancient complex situated alongside the central axis of Beijing, Huangshicheng enriches the historical and cultural connotations of the axis, and bears witness to the city's ancient history, Wu said.
The central axis, which boasts a history of more than 750 years, stretches for 7.8 kilometers from the Bell and Drum Tower in the north to Yongding Gate in the south. Many landmarks, including the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, are located on or alongside the axis.
History of debate
As Emperor Jiajing spent much time and effort in building Huangshicheng, he probably wanted to produce far more than a safe stone house to store historical records.
Jiajing succeeded to the throne from his cousin, Emperor Zhengde (1491-1521), who died childless. According to ancient tradition, Jiajing had to be "adopted" posthumously by his late uncle to correctly extend the royal lineage.
However, he did not want such an "adoption", but expected to honor his biological father through rituals held exclusively for emperors. His wishes triggered lasting and widespread debate among officials over such rites.
Li Weiwen, an architectural archaeologist at the Palace Museum, considers Huangshicheng an example of how Jiajing made clear his views on rites by having the complex built.
" (Amid the controversy), Jiajing found it difficult to directly lend his father's name to sacrifices at imperial ancestral temples, so he switched to designing a new center for rites ceremonies," Li said.
Huangshicheng was also a crucial part of Jiajing's ambitious plan to introduce a new ceremonial system that did not rely solely on temples.
He finally won the debate, thus consolidating his rule. Jiajing largely altered the layout of the center of Beijing by remodeling the Forbidden City and many other examples of stately architecture in the capital.
Wu said, "After the imperial years ended, the role of Huangshicheng took in national politics, and royal rites no longer existed, but its cultural significance in prolonging the cultural lineage of Chinese civilization continues to highlight its exceptional status."
In Huangshicheng's main palace, the most important archival material was placed in large golden cabinets known as jingui, with each one weighing 166 kilograms. The interiors of the cabinets were made from nanmu, a precious mothproof wood, and the exteriors — which featured engraved patterns of dragons and clouds — from a mixture of gold and copper.
A total of 152 jingui still exist, of which 19 were made during the Ming Dynasty and the remainder in the Qing Dynasty. Some of them are on display, with about 30 retained in the main palace, and the rest stored at the First Historical Archives of China for better protection, Wu said.
"The cabinets were made in different times. Although they follow the same format, there are differences in the detailed craftsmanship. Some have more exquisite patterns, while others were made in a relatively perfunctory way," he said.
Wu described how Huangshicheng functioned in the past. When an emperor died, his successor started to organize government officials to compile shilu ("veritable records"), chronicles of major events during the reign of the late emperor, and also to gather his important sayings to form another collection called shengxun ("the imperial sermon").
After a ceremony in the Forbidden City, shilu and shengxun were sent to Huangshicheng, where they were placed in the cabinets. Copies of them were sent to the Imperial Palace in Shengjing (present-day Shenyang, Liaoning province). The imperial palace of the early Qing emperors was regarded as their home.
Drawings of how the golden cabinets were arranged remain to this day.
After Huangshicheng was built, Emperor Jiajing ordered 109 people to make a copy of Yongle Dadian, the world's largest general encyclopedia made from paper in ancient times, which was commissioned by Emperor Yongle (1360-1424) in 1403.
It took five years to complete this work. The duplicate was stored at Huangshicheng for more than 160 years, before being moved to Hanlinyuan, the imperial academy during the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1722-35). The original collection has been lost, and the volumes that remain are part of the duplicated versions.
According to records from the time of Emperor Qianlong (1711-99), 19 people worked at Huangshicheng. They guarded the site and placed the documents in the sun in spring and autumn to better preserve them.
Unlike modern archives, where records can be accessed by the public, those stored at Huangshicheng were seldom borrowed unless permission was granted by the emperor. They remained in the cabinets most of the time.
Wu said, "At a time when there were no modern facilities such as air-conditioners, the construction of Huangshicheng shows that the best possible measures were taken to protect the archives from fire and damp, and keep the temperature at which they were stored constant."
The main palace is constructed on a platform 1.4 meters above the ground, with the cabinets placed on another platform the same height above the platform, making it difficult for rainwater to reach them.
The main palace was also built with extremely thick walls.
"The south wall is more than 6 meters wide, the north wall exceeds 5 meters, and the east and west walls are both 3.7 meters wide. The walls ensure the palace remains warm in winter and cool in summer," Wu said.
Despite the apparently solid structure of Huangshicheng, time has taken its toll on the buildings.
In its long history, the courtyard has been renovated many times. Such work has been carried out five times since 1949, with the most recent renovation starting in 2020.
Ma Xiangyu, who was engaged for the fifth renovation of Huangshicheng, which focused mainly on the west side hall and the base and walls of the north courtyard, said, "We were required not to change the original face of this cultural heritage, and to minimize interference with the buildings."
In 2019, the first time he visited the complex, Ma saw that each building needed repairs.
"The original base was paved with large bricks, but some of them had become fragmented, as had the glazed tiles. Some bricks in the walls had weathered away, and the tops of the walls were overgrown with weeds," he said.
Drainage posed the biggest problem. With Huangshicheng situated about 50 centimeters below the street running beside it, water often flowed into the complex on rainy days.
Ma said that without an advanced drainage system, the accumulated water sometimes reached up to his shin.
The renovation work, which took place in a central area home to numerous institutions and residents, required much negotiation, and the overall plan was revised three times after problems were found during this process.
The task was not easy for Ma, who was working on reconstructing ancient buildings for the first time.
"Our aim was to repair the old sections and prevent them becoming increasingly eroded. We learned how to do this from ancient construction methods documented in books, or passed down by word of mouth," he said.
Ma was impressed by the sophisticated ancient construction techniques. He said the foundations of the Huangshicheng gate are extremely solid, as elaborate efforts were made to lay them several hundred years ago.
"Although people in ancient times didn't have the technology that we have, they made achievements comparable with those of today. This shows the wisdom of the Chinese in such times," Ma said.
The drainage problem was solved by improving the system. "Since the renovation work was completed, Huangshicheng is no longer flooded on rainy days," he added.
Security and fire protection facilities at the site have also been upgraded.
"We built a security protection and control system by using new technology that meets present-day requirements and plays an important role in safeguarding such an ancient complex," Ma said.
During the renovation work, a door was discovered in the south courtyard at Huangshicheng.
During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, a drawing of Huangshicheng showed a door in the south wall, but buildings had subsequently hidden the door. The newly discovered door, which has also been renovated, matches that depicted in the drawing.
Huangshicheng is not the only place to store records from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Documents were also housed in the imperial cabinet repository and other buildings in the Forbidden City.
Chinese dynasties have a tradition of respecting and guarding archives.
Wu said: "The Taoist philosopher Laozi was responsible for keeping imperial files for the royal family in the Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-256 BC), after which professional agencies managed the archives. Huangshicheng is the oldest and most complete structure of its kind that still stands today in China."
The idea of storing historical records inside golden cabinets in stone-built structures can be traced to Shiji, or Records of the Grand Historian, the foundation text of Chinese history dating to the 1st century BC.
"The aim was to protect paper-based literature from fire, water and changing temperatures," Wu said.
The First Historical Archives of China are now home to more than 10 million Ming and Qing historical records. Most of them are from the latter dynasty, and they provide a vivid portrait of that era, down to details such as Emperor Qianlong's food and clothing on a specific day, Wu said.
On Feb 15, a display of Ming and Qing historical records — part of exhibitions of "four great discoveries" of the early 20th century from ancient literary artifacts — opened at the National Museum of Classic Books in Beijing, showcasing 123 archival items and related cultural relics.
Some of the archives were stored at Huangshicheng, including Emperor Qianlong's shengxun and shilu, along with a golden cabinet used originally to store records from the days of Emperor Yongzheng. These items are exhibited with other records such as government decrees, ancient maps and documents about imperial life.
Gu Heng, director of the National Library of China's exhibition department and executive curator of the exhibition, said: "These exhibits were imperial secret records, and they have been preserved well. They systematically record the political, economic and technological development of that era and illustrate many facets of that society, just like an encyclopedia."
Rao Quan, vice-minister of culture and tourism, said at the exhibition's opening ceremony: "During the uninterrupted history of our civilization, Chinese people have created an ocean of literature and archives. They have become carriers of our culture, and play an irreplaceable role in helping us study history, inherit civilization and spread the spirit of our country."