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Keyuan, Beijing’s secret garden, remains locked

Readers of Heritage Update will recall in late 2008 we reported that Keyuan was facing an imminent demolition threat. Now we want to update you on the current status of this historical garden.

Historical background to Keyuan

The Nanluoguxiang Historical and Cultural Protection Zone is one of the oldest and most important districts of Beijing.

The Nanluoguxiang area of the Ming and Qing Dynasties was much like it is today: a lively hub of diverse local people, businesses and buildings. This included government bureaus, temples and influential residences.

The cultural heart of the area lies between Nanluoguxiang Street and Di’anmen Wai Street, and at this core is many historically rich hutongs, such as Mao’er Hutong. This unique alley was the home of a Beiyang warlord (Feng Guozhang), Qing Tidu[1] bureaus and the pre-marital residence of Empress Wanrong. It is also home to Keyuan.

Keyuan is one of the best preserved Qing Dynasty designed gardens in China. Keyuan was laid out in the mid-19th century by renowned scholar-official, Wen Yu, as part of his residence on Mao’er Hutong. The courtyard has five connected yards, and is more than 10,000m2 in total.

Keyuan is the garden portion of the complex, with hills, ponds, bamboo groves, rocks, winding paths, arbors and pavilions, inspired by the famous gardens of Suzhou.  Wen Yu treasured his garden and so named it ‘Keyuan’, which means ‘the favored garden’.

The courtyard’s present address is No.7 to No.13 of Mao’er Hutong, and Keyuan is No.9 and its current property owner is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Courtyard No.7 has been heavily damaged, but the rest of the residence is well preserved.

How Keyuan is being preserved

Though less renowned than the Forbidden City, Keyuan actually has the same level of protection. Because of its cultural significance, the Beijing government declared Keyuan, and the rest of Wen Yu’s courtyard (No.7 to No.13) a protected cultural relic as far back as 1984. The State Council also announced Keyuan as a Cultural Relic of National Importance under the Protection of the State in 2001.

This means that according to the Law of People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics, Mao’er Hutong No.7 to No.11 are under the strictest protection – equal to the Forbidden City. All renovations need to be approved through legally defined proceedings, and demolishing Keyuan is strictly forbidden.

No.13 of Mao’er Hutong was not included in the protected area. However, since the courtyard is situated in the Nanluoguxiang Historical and Cultural Protection Zone, No.13 is still protected (Protection Plan of the 25 Protection Zones of the Beijing Old City ).

If these laws are enforced and the area is gradually renovated and opened to the public, Wen Yu’s courtyard and Keyuan will become the best example of a private courtyard in Beijing. Mao’er Hutong would also develop into one of Beijing’s most vibrant and valuable hutongs.

Background to preserving Keyuan from demolition

Despite its historical importance and protection status, in 2008 Keyuan faced a demolition threat. CHP discovered that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the property owner of Wen Yu’s Courtyard, had unexpectedly applied to demolish Mao’er Hutong No. 9, No. 11 (Keyuan) and No. 13. The application was approved by the Real Estate Administrative Bureau of the Dongcheng District.

The proposed project, which ignores the laws protecting the courtyard, was deeply troubling to CHP. Starting from 19 November 2008, CHP made several online appeals for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to abandon its project to demolish Keyuan. The reasons for our appeal were:

  1. 1. Keyuan is a Cultural Relic of National Importance under the Protection of the State. This potential demolition is strictly protected by law.
  2. As property owner, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a legal responsibility to protect Keyuan.
  3. The government’s demolition, and relocation, of administrative departments have publicly noticed the dismantling project of Keyuan, but such notice failed to attract the attention of the cultural relics protection departments.
  4. Many cultural heritage sites in Beijing have been destroyed by demolition and relocation projects. We do not want to see this happen to Keyuan.

The goals of our appeal were:

  1. Halt the dismantling project of Keyuan.
  2. Renovate Keyuan strictly complying with cultural relics protection principles and legal proceedings.
  3. Gradually open Keyuan to the public.

CHP’s appeal raised the attention of relevant administrative departments and the property owner. We have found some comfort in the statement of Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Mr. Qin Gang, when he answered questions from journalists on November 25, 2008. He said (transcript of live recording, not verified by the writer):

“It [Keyuan] is one of Beijing’s protected cultural heritage sites. In order to reinforce the management and the renovation of cultural relics, and to reduce the hidden risks regarding safety, we have decided, with approval from the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, to renovate this estate and open it to the public thereafter, so as to better protect this cultural heritage. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will strictly comply with the relevant laws and regulations when relocating the residents and will make sure the safety of the cultural relic buildings. Meanwhile, we will draft a renovation plan for the cultural relics to ensure the cultural relic buildings are preserved and protected in a timely manner.”

What Mr. Qin Gang said can be summed up as two points:

  1. Keyuan will be renovated.
  2. Once restored, Keyuan will be open to the public.

The current status of Keyuan

More than a year has passed since Mr. Qin Gang’s statement, but CHP is still deeply concerned about Keyuan.

While Keyuan hasn’t been developed or demolished, there has also been no progress in what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised, and we are still concerned about Keyuan’s future.

The Beijing News (Xinjingbao) is also worried about Keyuan’s future. On 20 January, 2010, the Beijing News published the story “How Mysterious is it, The ‘Secret Garden’?”[2] , which introduced Keyuan’s cultural value and current condition, along with CHP’s efforts to encourage renovating and opening Keyuan to the public.

Keyuan is a beautiful and mysterious place, but is still not open to the general public. The benefits of allowing public access to Keyuan are well explained in the Beijing News article.

CHP sincerely hopes that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will renovate Keyuan and open it to the Chinese people, so everyone can visit and enjoy this secret garden.

CHP would like to thank our volunteer translator, Ruoran Li, for her outstanding translation of this article.


[1] “Tidu” refers to officials in the army, similar to “general” in the west. In Qing dynasty, there used to be twelve Tidu for the land force and three Tidu for the navy.

[2] http://epaper.bjnews.com.cn/images/2010-01/20/D12/d12120c.pdf

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