Detail of a carved column at Shenyang Palace, former capital of China during the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty.

The Shenyang Imperial Palace, located in the capital city of Liaoning Province, was the imperial residence of the Later-Jin kingdom (1616–1644) prior to their founding of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Serving as an administrative center for the Manchus, the royal complex’s architecture represents not only the material culture and artistic aspects of its time, but the political necessity as well.

The Shenyang Imperial Palace, or Mukden Palace, was constructed in 1625 when Shenyang (modern capital of Liaoning Province, in northeast China) became the site of the capital city for the Later-Jin kingdom (1616–1644), a Jurchen outpost in Manchuria that rose to power toward the end of the Han Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The palatial complex served as the administrative headquarters and royal residence until the Manchurians breached the Great Wall in 1644 to rule China as the Qing Empire. The architectural complex is particularly noted for its unique synthesis of ethnic Manchu and Chinese attributes. It also provides invaluable data for understanding its owners’ native past and their assimilation into Chinese mainstream culture.

The palace complex covers 60,000 square meters and comprises three groups of architectural structures in parallel north-south axial lines. Completed by 1626, the eastern sector exemplifies the incipient phase of Manchu official architecture and is reminiscent of a military encampment. The Grand Hall of Administration, as the palace’s principle building, was a stage for the Great Khan (as the Manchu emperor was called) to hold court, to inspect his army, and to perform grand rites. This octagonal, south-facing, double-eaved pavilion on an elevated base incorporates hybrid decorative schemes originating from Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchurian, and Chinese cultures. On its front are ten smaller square pavilions in two equal rows extending outward to embrace an elongated quasi-trapezoidal courtyard. These buildings were offices for the chiefs that were leading military divisions called “Banners,” or administrative precincts in the Manchu government. They allude to the collapsible tent barracks previously used at court assemblies to house Banner chiefs, who were regularly summoned to collaborate with the Great Khan for policymaking. In conjunction with a carriage house behind the Grand Hall, the layout of these buildings visually explains the unique Banner administrative system, which was deeply rooted in a nomadic tribalism.

The main body of the palatial complex is the newer middle section, which consists of rows of mid-eighteenth century additions flanking structures built during 1627–1634. Across a large courtyard from the main entrance in the south is the administration building called the Hall of State Affairs. Beyond is the central courtyard in front of the Phoenix pavilion, a conspicuous, multi-story, hip-roofed structure whose façade doubles as the entrance to the northern courtyard still further behind. The northern sector is the venue of a ritual totem and the Pure Tranquility Hall, in which altars dedicated to ancestors and facilities for shamanistic rites are set next to the emperor’s and empress’s chambers. The entire complex of living quarters, consisting of the Pure Tranquility Hall, the Phoenix pavilion, and four lesser residence halls nearby, is planted on top of a terrace (3.8 m high) that is physically divided from the administrative offices to the south. The use of a high platform to elevate architectural structures from the ground level, in particular, is a distinct Manchurian trait reminiscent of the mountain dwellings of older days. These resident halls also are remarkable showcases of rich regional features of Manchu architectural forms. Among the unique features are variegated roof-ridge ornaments and eave trims, carved frontal animal masks on pillar tops, wooden dragon sculptures as beams under the eaves, along with heated platforms inside.

To the west is the site of a two-story book repository and an operatic performing center. Added to the complex in late eighteenth century, they were constructed to comply with official codes used nationwide. Comparable to typical Ming/Qing official architectures aesthetically and structurally, they appear distinctive yet blend well with older constructions within the palatial compound. Although the royal complex of Shenyang is a fraction of the size of the more famous Forbidden City in Beijing that succeeded it as the seat of Manchu power, its distinct character, rich history, and multifaceted architecture contribute to its status as a unique and irreplaceable element of the complex tapestry of Chinese imperial life.

Further Reading

Fu Xinian, Guo Daiheng, Liu Xujie, Pan Giuxi, Qiao Yun, & Sun Dazhang. (2002). Chinese architecture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press and New World Press.

Lou Qingxi. (1994). Zhongguo gongdian jianzhu [Palatial architecture of China]. Taipei, Taiwan: Yishu Chubanshe.

Ru Jinghua & Peng Huailiang. (1998). Ancient Chinese architecture: Palace architecture. New York: Springer-Verlag Wien.

Source: Chiou-Peng, TzeHuey. (2009). Shenyang Imperial Palace. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1960–1961. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Similarities in style can be seen between the Forbidden City and Shenyang Palace, such as the ornamented roof ridges pictured here.

Shenyang Imperial Palace (Sh?nyáng Gùg?ng ????)|Sh?nyáng Gùg?ng ???? (Shenyang Imperial Palace)

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