Hangzhou Travel Photography - China’s Best Mansion
Updated: Jul 9, 2018
In a previous post, I wrote about the Singapore Bonsai Gardens and some ideas behind classical Chinese landscaping, but visiting Hu Xueyan’s Former Residence in Hangzhou was an entirely different experience altogether! This Qing dynasty house is lauded as the best mansion in China, spanning an area of about 6670 square metres. The mansion took 3 years to complete and is said to cost about 3 million taels of silver in construction fees.
The entrance of the mansion along Yuanbao Road is rather small and understated, quite unexpected for a house of such repute. In the Qing dynasty, it was apparently rare for mansions to be clearly named or marked with external signages (e.g. “X庄“ X府”), unlike what we see in period dramas. By not having such signs outside the house, owners could preserve a greater sense of privacy (which was much needed in the busy city) and lower the risk of their homes getting burgled by concealing the identity of the mansion’s owner, especially if he was someone rich and important. As a result, giving someone the address of your home was considered a privilege only reserved for close friends and trusted associates.
However, it was still possible to guess the status of the home’s occupants based on external clues, as there were regulations governing the architecture one’s home could have depending on one’s status. For example, only officials of the second rank could have decorations of certain auspicious beasts on the rooftops of their main abode, and the maximum height one could build the doorsill of his house also depending on how high one’s rank was. Even the type of paint and oils allowed to be use in the home were strictly regulated according to one's status! People also had to use the right terminology to refer to their homes; only members of the ruling family could use “府”, while officials referred to their homes as “第“, and merchants called their homes “宅”, regardless of how lavish or huge the house was.
Upon entering the house, one would have to walk through a narrow passageway before encountering a decorative dividing wall. This was commonly installed as the ancients did not want the interior of the house, and one’s private life, to be easily seen from outside, and the demarcation of space transitioning from the public to private world had significant symbolism in Chinese philosophy. The servants’ quarters were also located in this part of the house - in the space between the outside world and the actual areas used by the home’s residents.
Circling around this wall finally takes you to the main courtyard of the mansion, where we begin to get a better idea of why this mansion deserves its title. The courtyard space is bordered by tile-capped walls about 10m in height, which creates a sense of the house having its own patch of sky. The viewer’s gaze gets focused on a central pavilion surrounded by thoughtful landscaping and an artful arrangement of bridges, walkways, and plants in varying colours. While the Bonsai garden (and many other Suzhou-styled houses) offer a series of pleasant views with winding pathways and small, garden spaces, the first glimpse of He Xueyan’s mansion impresses the viewer through a sprawling sense of scale, dwarfing the human figure with its grandeur.
The owner of this mansion was known as the “God of Wealth” in his time. Coming from a humble farming background, he worked his way up as an employee in a bank, and started several business with help from friends, and his own brilliance at finance. We can think of him as the Jack Ma of his era. He had businesses in banking, real estate, shipping, Chinese medicine, and was also involved in the trading of salt, tea, silk, grain and weaponry. Obviously, these were the hugely profitable resources to deal in at that time, and Hu Xueyan’s wealth was comparable to that of a small country. In fact, he donated and loaned money to the Qing government on several occasions. Due to his contributions, he was the only person from the merchant class in the Qing dynasty to be granted an official rank of the second grade. He was also one of the few people given permission to ride a horse in the Forbidden city, a superior privilege reserved for the Emperor’s most favoured subjects.
He Xueyan’s home was not just famous for its size; the materials used in construction were also top notch, rivalling what was used in the imperial palace. Even the timber for the central beams of his sedan-chair storage room was made from top quality ginkgo wood, more lavish than the wood used in some palace rooms. He dared to enjoy luxuries which the Emperor did not even own, and historical records commented on how his extravagant style of living exceeded that of princes, describing the transformative effect of his riches on his sense of self. (“大起园林，纵情声色，起居豪奢，过于王侯，骄奢淫逸，大改本性。”) Presumably, his success invited a lot of jealousy and competition, along with admiration.
Following the maze-like arrangement of passageways would eventually take visitors beyond the central courtyard to a warren of private residences, arranged in clusters of four around a central courtyard space. Traditionally, visitors would only be entertained in the halls and reception rooms surrounding the main courtyard and should not trespass into the private residences. In some households, women were not even allowed to leave these inner courtyards without reason, or without the company of their family members. He Xueyan apparently gave the best room in the house to his mother, and specially designed another inner courtyard garden for her, and his wife, which none of his other twelve concubines were allowed to enter. There was also an opera stage for his mother and wife to enjoy private performances.
Two other architectural features of the house deserve a special mention. First, the use of stained-glass in the door and window panels is unique to this house, testifying of Hu’s exposure to Western art forms and interactions with foreign merchants. The designs for the stained glass differed from room to room, and these materials, as well as craftsmen, had to be specially imported to build what he wanted. Second, the rockery in his Zhiyuan Garden is also famous for being the largest artificial karst cave in China. Hu Xueyan spent more than 100 thousand taels of silver to hire top artisans from a prince’s residence in Beijing, and paid for their living expenses until they completed the work. These features spoke strongly of a man who sought to create his own private haven by possessing these scenes from nature and even foreign cultures, claiming the most wondrous sights in the world for his personal pleasure.
Unfortunately, like all tragic heroes, his hubristic attempts at self-creation ultimately came to a tragic end due to forces he could not control. Due to the Qing government’s weak management of international trade relations, Western merchants gained more and more control of the silk and tea markets, and Chinese goods were increasingly being boycotted by foreign trading partners. Hu Xueyan bought over huge amounts of raw silk and tea to help sustain the local industries, but it was a poorly calculated manoeuvre. He had difficulty selling these goods and eventually made huge losses, which resulted in him declaring bankruptcy. He was also embroiled in political conspiracies and ended up having his official title taken away, and his assets confiscated by the court. He died in a depressive state at the age of 62, just ten years after this mansion was completed.
A Taiwanese author, Gao Yang, wrote of how Hu Xueyan’s personal failure represented China’s decline in the global economy as well, arguing that Hu Xueyan’s tragedy was not due to business mismanagement, but the production of cheaper, mass-produced goods in Europe (which was undergoing the industrial revolution at that time). His desire to keep China’s artisanal industries afloat cost him everything, but also led to him being characterized in the history books as a heroic figure, single-handedly struggling against the Western capitalist pressures which were undermining Chinese sovereignty.
After his death, the mansion was sold off at 1/10th of its original cost, and spaces in the house were rented out for mixed used. Several rooms in the house were used as a school, others as a factory, and others for public residential use. There were up to a hundred tenants staying in the house at one point in time! Such misuse of the property and its poor maintenance led to it falling into disrepair. It was re-discovered by accident many years later, and opened again to the public in 2001 as a heritage site, with reparations costing a whopping 600 million yuan. Today, it is one of the most recommended tourist attractions in Hangzhou, and of course, a fantastic location for Hanfu photography if you’re in the area!
Finally, to wrap up this article on a less tragic note, here are some photos of Hanfugirl exploring the mansion!