A rise and a fall, on the wings of a bat

( China Daily )

Prince Gong's Mansion, witness to the history of China's Qing Dynasty. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Palace holds a tale of ambition, power and humiliation

If there is one animal that best captures the cultural differences between China and the West, it is the bat. The winged, mouse-like, nocturnal animal was portrayed as a spy in an English textbook story I read in middle school. But then, 20 years on, as I, an English language student, rediscovered the beauty and nuances of my own cultural heritage, I realized that bat was worshipped by my ancestors.

The reason is simple. In Chinese, the word for bat is a homophone of the word for blissfulness or felicity. When this pronunciation-based association emerged is unknown, but throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had become so popular as to enjoy a visual domination in lives both privileged and ordinary.

It took a casual visitor like me five minutes to recognize that, once stepping into the sumptuous garden abode known as Gong Wang Fu, or Prince Gong's Mansion, inside the Second Ring Road in Beijing, just northwest to the city's axle. First built in the late 18th century, it is today the best preserved mansion for any prince from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty.

The mansion features a bat pond, a bat hall and numerous colorfully painted, bat-inspired architectural details. Both the pond and the hall resemble a bat with extended wings in the aerial view.

An inscription of the Chinese character fu, based on the calligraphy of Emperor Kangxi. 

 [Photo provided to China Daily]

It was clear that fu was what the successive owners of the mansion, some of whom were overshadowed by the fame of this place, had always wanted. Yet fu had proved to be elusive, at least for those whose personal fortunes were contingent on emperors' goodwill, as well as for those caught in the vortex of their times.

The construction of Prince Gong's Mansion, occupying 60,000 square meters, was believed to have begun around 1776, more than 70 years before it got its current name. The first owner of the grand abode - so grand indeed that it eventually contributed to its owner's demise - was Niuhuru Heshen (Niuhuru is the Manchu surname of the man, more widely known simply as Heshen.)

Heshen has gone down in history as someone corrupted by power and greed, and is often portrayed in Chinese period dramas as a cunning, plump and slightly hilarious man with a flair for flattery. Cunning, for sure; plump, no way!

According to the official history of Qing, Heshen in his early days was handsome and hard-learning, attentive and alert. With a knack for sensing what his master wanted and an aptitude to satisfy that wish, the young officer soon earned the favor of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), favor that proved to be lasting.

For more than a decade before the emperor's death, Heshen was the most powerful man at the Qing court, effectively in control of the state's military and finance, as well as officials' promotion and demotion.

The bat hall viewed from different perspectives. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Speaking of finance, Heshen was reputed for finding ways to finance Emperor Qianlong's extravagant trip to southeastern China without having to draw a penny from the state coffer. The local governments and businesses along the trip's route paid for it, presumably thanks to Heshen's cajolery and coercion.

The man was utterly resourceful in amassing personal wealth, the scale of which became clear only after his fall from grace.

Around 1776, construction of Heshen's new residence, which was to become Prince Gong's Mansion, began. At the time Heshen was merely 26 yet already a rising political star. The work took nearly a decade to complete and the result was a regally designed, sumptuously realized residential compound that covers 60,000 square meters. It would have lived up to any comparison with the residence of a real court prince at the time.

Heshen lived there for 11 years, together with his eldest son, who married the youngest and most beloved daughter of Emperor Qianlong.

In February 1799 Qianlong died. (Officially, the emperor had handed the crown to his son, Emperor Jiaqing, three years earlier. But the old man loosened his grip on power only at the very last moment of his life.) Fifteen days later, Heshen was imprisoned and forced to commit suicide by Emperor Jiaqing, on multiple charges topped by corruption. (His total personal wealth was estimated at nearly 15 times that of the Qing court's annual income.)

The grand abode, once a sign of royal favor, ultimately only served to bring him shame. According to Heshen's accusers, the arrangement of one room inside closely resembled that of a palace in the Forbidden City, the royal residence for successive Qing emperors. And that was considered a serious transgression.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

On Heshen's death, the compound was partly handed over by Emperor Jiaqing to his younger brother Aisingioro Yonglin (Aisin-gioro is the royal family's surname). But Yonglin, known for his hedonism, had to share it with Heshen's eldest son, who, thanks to his marriage to the princess, Jiaqing's youngest half-sister, was spared from prosecution.

The princess died in 1823, 13 years after her husband's death in 1810 and three years after the death of Yonglin in 1820. After that the mansion was inhabited by Yonglin's offspring until 1850.

In 1850 the mansion, having slipped gradually into disrepair, was given by the then reigning EmperorXianfeng (Xianfeng was the grandson of Emperor Jiaqing.) to his brother Aisin-gioro Yixin, a former contender for the throne whom Xianfeng believed needed appeasement.

Gong is the royal title for the prince, meaning being respectful and dutiful. Thus the place became known as Prince Gong's Mansion. Remaining in the center of power - and power struggle - for the next 48 years, Prince Gong had enough time and money to put on a renovation, one that restored to the mansion its long-lost splendor.

But splendor was no more for the ailing empire. Within those years the Qing Dynasty, first founded in 1644, suffered miserably and humiliatingly at the hands of the Western powers. Battles were fought and lost. As a result, unequal treaties were signed and in many cases - the Treaty of Beijing signed by China and Britain and China and France is an example - Yixin, or Prince Gong, was the one in charge of the negotiations.

[Photo provided to China Daily]

In 1861, less than 10 months after the Treaty of Beijing was signed, Emperor Xianfeng died. A month later Yixin staged a palace coup together with two empress dowagers. The aim was to grab power from the "eight consuls", whom the dying emperor had entrusted to guide the new ruler, the five-year-old Emperor Tongzhi.

The coup succeeded. The empress dowagers, especially Empress Dowager Xici, who was the new emperor's birth mother, came to power. Yixin was rewarded handsomely. But that was hardly a guarantee of safety: over the following decades, Yixin gingerly negotiated the immensely complicated political waters of the Qing Dynasty in its twilight years, only to have himself reduced gradually to a shadow of his former self, with little courage for change.

Once at the helm of a movement aimed at empowering the empire mainly through introducing science, technology and manufacturing from the West, Yixin stood on the opposite side of the reformers as they sought to more fundamentally change China's political, cultural and educational systems. It was recorded that when the reformed-minded Emperor Guangxu, who was his nephew, pleaded with him, he resorted "only to silence".

That silence was symbolic. Yixin died in May 1898, barely four months before the reformers were slaughtered by the Cixi-headed conservative group and 13 years before the fall of Qing, replaced by a republic.

Aisin-gioro Yixin, also known as Prince Gong, in his garden abode. 

 [Photo provided to China Daily]

But Prince Gong's Mansion still belonged to Yixin's family and successors, until 1932, when the prince's grandson, knee deep in debt, sold it to a Catholic university in Beijing.

After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, the mansion was put to various uses at various times. At one time in the early 1980, the entire compound was divided up between more than 200 occupants.

Relocation and restoration started in the mid 1980s. In 2008, the mansion was officially opened to the public, and since then was hailed for "housing half of the Qing history".

One thing that a tour guide never fails to point out for a visitor is a Chinese character, fu, carved in stone and hidden in a cave underneath a manmade hill inside the mansion's garden. (The mansion is split in two: a more formal frontal part and a back garden.) It is believed that the character was originally written by Emperor Kangxi, grandfather of Emperor Qianlong, before it was inscribed on stone.

How the fu-bearing stone stele ended up in the mansion no one knows. Like the bats and bat-inspired architectural designs, it was expected to protect the owners of the mansion from harm, and to imbue their life, and hopefully afterlife, with fortune. Fortune they certainly had had, before it dissolved in the acid of lust and was swept away by the currents of history.