The Grand Theatre Tower
Built during the reign of Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1874), the Grand Theatre Tower, covering an area of 685 square meters, was where Prince Kung and his relatives and friends saw operas. Now, it is the only existing enclosed theatre in China. In the records of the Qing court, theatres were called “grand theatre houses”. Though constructed with bricks and woods, it is said that no iron nails were used in the construction. The most noteworthy is its exceptional sound effect which was produced by hollowing out the earth below the stage and placing several vats. This design creates a large the resonant and reverberant space, and makes sure that wherever the audience is, he/she can hear the actors without the help of any sound transmission or amplification tool. A famous singer, who performed here once, excitedly complimented that the sound effect of the Grand Theatre was even better than a concert hall.
Though the exterior of the Theatre is not special in design, its interior is splendid and magnificent. The two pillars beside the stage, its four walls and the ceiling are all painted with twining wisterias, forming beautiful scenery of flourishing green leaves and wisterias, and making the audience feel as if they were under a real wisteria trellis. It’s said that at that time, even Empress Dowager Cixi watched performances in the yard (outside the room). Prince Kung was afraid that he would be accused of arrogation if he watched performances in the theatre (inside the room). Therefore, he painted the ceiling with wisterias, implying that this is a wisterias trellis, not a hall. 20 palace lanterns hang from the ceiling, and the floor is paved with blue bricks. On the floor, 20 old-fashioned square tables and armchairs are placed in order. The back wall is decorated with light brown wood latticework, using dark blue silk as the lining. The southern part of the Theatre is the dressing room, in front of which is a 1-meter high stage, above which hangs a black plaque inscribed with four golden seal characters “Shang Xin Le Shi” (meaning “in good mood and happiness”). The northern part is the parquet and boxes for guests and the family’s female members. Since Prince Kung’s birthday fell in late October of the lunar calendar, when grand birthday parties were hosted here, the servants would make a fire to warm the tower. Therefore, it was also called “Warm Tower” by residents of the Mansion. Besides performing operas, the Theatre was used to host weddings and funerals as well. When an important people of the Mansion died, the Theatre would be covered with elegiac couplets and white cloth, full of incense smokes and filled with monks and nuns chanting scriptures to release souls from purgatory.
In 1936, Puru, grandson of Prince Kung and a famous painter who was still living in the Garden, organized an opera party in the Mansion for his mother Madam Xiang to celebrate her birthday, in which nearly all the famous Peking Opera performers at that time were invited to perform. That is the last home performance in this Grand Theatre Tower. Now, performances in the Theatre include Peking Opera, Kunqu Opera and royal music, among which royal music is the most distinctive one. It is mainly dominated by sanxian (a three-stringed fretless plucked musical instrument) together with other six musical instruments, featuring gorgeousness and solemnity. When the former Prime Minister of Singapore Mr. Li Kuan Yew paid a visit to China, he required to appreciate the music of the princely mansion in the Grand Theatre Tower. During the 2-hour performance, Mr. Li indulged himself in the beautiful music and spoke highly of this classical Chinese music and the Theatre.
Behind the Theatre, there is a set of buildings, where a plaque inscribed “Tian Xiang Ting Yuan” (meaning “courtyard of heaven fragrance”) used to hang. The buildings formerly functioned as the Mansion’s “Family Temple”, in which Prince Kung’s memorial tablet was enshrined.
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