How to Rebuild an 800-Year-Old Imperial Palace
More than 83 dynasties rose and fell over the course of imperial China’s two-millennia-long history, yet hardly any of the hundreds of palaces they built still stand today. This is in large part because these structures were traditionally made from wood, making them difficult to preserve, but also due to the preference of newly founded dynasties to set the previous regime’s palaces to the torch. Only one exception to this rule has stood the test of time: The imperial palace of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was spared by its Qing (1644-1912) conquerors, a decision that bequeathed us the world-renowned Forbidden City.
The palaces of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), located in the eastern city of Hangzhou, were less fortunate. In 1276, a Mongolian army captured Hangzhou and promptly reduced it to rubble. The city was rebuilt, but the ruins of the Song capital were lost to history until 1984, when archeologists from the Hangzhou Archaeology Research Institute identified a Song-era brick path running from Xingong Bridge in the south to Wanxian Bridge in the north of the city. The excavations that followed eventually led to the discovery of Deshou Palace, a sprawling complex of close to 170,000 square meters, including buildings, gardens, and landscape features.
Strictly speaking, Deshou Palace wasn’t a palace at all; rather, it was something akin to an imperial retirement home: the complex to which multiple Southern Song emperors retreated after abdicating their thrones. In 1162, the dynasty’s first emperor, Zhao Gou — better known by his reign name, Gaozong — adopted the existing but rarely used neishan system of imperial succession, whereby, instead of ruling until death, the emperor would abdicate early and be succeeded by a family member. In Gaozong’s case, that was his son Zhao Dun, who would reign as the Emperor Guangzong.
This left a thorny question unresolved, however: Where would the former emperor live after his abdication? The solution was found in the mansion of former Prime Minister Qin Hui, which Gaozong renovated into the Deshou Palace. Gaozong spent the final 25 years of his life in Deshou, only dying at the age of 81. Two years later, his son followed in Gaozong’s footsteps, abdicating the throne and retiring to Deshou.
On Dec. 28, 2020, the city of Hangzhou launched the first phase of its Southern Song Museum project, which aims to preserve and showcase the remains of the Deshou Palace grounds. The overall layout of the project was based on that of the original palace, as indicated by both textual sources and the findings of archaeological digs, including a “conservation tent” for presenting archaeological finds to visitors, an indoor exhibit of the Deshou Palace ruins, and an elevated, full-size replica of the wooden palace building as it might have looked 800 years ago.
The project was not as straightforward as it sounds. In particular, those involved in the project, myself included, wanted to be sure that our replica was accurate. China is rife with archaeological reconstruction projects, many of them bearing only a tangential resemblance to the buildings they are meant to recreate. Was there a way to ensure the Deshou Palace replica faithfully represented the architecture and aesthetics of the Southern Song?
The reconstruction team, of which I am the lead, started with the most substantial source of evidence at our disposal — that is, the remains of buildings and objects unearthed during archaeological excavations of the palace grounds. These artifacts were an invaluable reference when determining the depth and breadth of the palace building, as well as the size of its tiles and bricks. The columns of our replica were placed in the same position as those of the original, for example.
Second, we consulted a number of primary textual sources. Cameras didn’t exist in the Southern Song Dynasty and we don’t have any hard photographic evidence of what Deshou Palace looked like, but texts from the time describe important aspects of the building.
Arguably the most important textual source we consulted wasn’t from the Southern Song at all, but its predecessor, the Northern Song (960-1127). Known as the Yingzao Fashi, or the “Treatise on Architectural Methods,” it was written by the scholar Li Jie during the Northern Song Dynasty and is the most thorough extant text on construction techniques produced in ancient China. Its influence was so great that a legendary team of architecture scholars in the 1930s and ‘40s referred to themselves as the “Yingzao Society.” The founders of Chinese modern architectural studies, Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin, even named their son Congjie — meaning “following the teachings of Li Jie.”
The “Treatise” is not a book about architectural theory; rather, it’s a set of official guidelines aimed at standardizing architectural construction. Though fashi could be interpreted as “methods,” the word might also be understood as “decrees,” “legal articles,” or “set formulas.” At the time, the famed Song minister Wang Anshi was carrying out a set of sweeping reforms targeting, among other things, corruption in the construction industry, including overestimations of building costs, fraudulent plans, shoddy work, inferior materials, and embezzlement — all very modern problems.
Wang commissioned Li to lay down a comprehensive set of standards for pricing and building techniques. In all, it took a full decade for Li to complete his work, by which time Wang had already died. But the popularity of the “Treatise” would long outlast its creators, and the construction work on Deshou Temple almost certainly abided by the norms laid out in its pages.
After this, we looked at surviving examples of wooden architecture from elsewhere in the region. We also studied paintings from the Song period, particularly jiehua, or “boundary paintings,” a style popular among artists depicting architectural structures. Although politically troubled, the Song attributed great importance to the fine arts. Emperor Gaozong was no exception, helping promote the Hanlin Art Academy, which produced fleets of court painters who were well versed in the jiehua style.
The jiehua artist used a ruler to ensure that the details of buildings were represented with the utmost precision. Their works thus offer a relatively detailed window into the era’s architecture. For example, paintings were particularly useful when recreating the tile embellishments along the ridges of the palace roof. To recreate the palace’s chiwen — gargoyle-like ornaments named after and usually representing a type of dragon in Chinese mythology — we consulted a painting by an earlier Song emperor, Huizong.
Finally, we researched the life and taste of the earliest occupant of Deshou Palace, Emperor Gaozong himself. His depiction in the history books — corrupt, debauched, and cowardly — is far from flattering. He’s routinely pilloried for conspiring against national heroes like Yue Fei while granting land, titles, and tribute in exchange for peace with the Kingdom of Jin to the north.
The reality was likely more nuanced. He was probably more frugal than the historical record would indicate — otherwise, he surely would have gone all out in building a lavish new home for his retirement rather than renovating the former residence of a minister. He was also proficient in calligraphy and painting, suggesting a refined sense of aesthetics. Taking these factors into consideration helped us determine the overall style of his palace: elegant, but sober.
There is no such thing as a perfect reconstruction, but after two years of work, I believe that our replica will provide visitors with an honest and balanced portrait of one of China’s most controversial dynasties.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Wu Haiyun.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Kilian O’Donnell. portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A general view of Deshou Palace in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Sept. 21, 2022. IC)