Development of Theaters and the City in Beijing: The 1950s and Post-1980s

  • Xiangdong LuEmail author


Theaters and the city of Beijing are two meaningful architecture and urbanism concepts, respectively. Theaters are an important type of building in Beijing, which as the capital of both the Ming and Qing Dynasties has developed a special urban spatial structure. The city has continuously changed since becoming the capital of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Across different periods, a series of intriguing changes in the relationship between theaters and the urban space of Beijing has emerged due to the development of theaters and the city itself. In this chapter, we mainly discuss the changes occurring after 1949.

1.1 Theaters and the City of Beijing

Theaters and the city of Beijing are two meaningful architecture and urbanism concepts, respectively. Theaters are an important type of building in Beijing, which as the capital of both the Ming and Qing Dynasties has developed a special urban spatial structure. The city has continuously changed since becoming the capital of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Across different periods, a series of intriguing changes in the relationship between theaters and the urban space of Beijing has emerged due to the development of theaters and the city itself. In this chapter, we mainly discuss the changes occurring after 1949.

Before our discussion, we must explain some basic information on Beijing and theaters before 1949—specifically, at the end of the Qing Dynasty (A.D. 1644–1911) and in the early years of the Republic of China (A.D. 1911–1949). This information serves as a basis for our later discussion.

Here we summarize essential information on the theaters in Beijing at the end of the Qing Dynasty and in the early years of the Republic of China (Xue 2009; Hou 1999) (Fig. 1.1). Several kinds of theaters existed at the end of the Qing Dynasty: royal stages, stages in bureaucratic mansions, folk tea garden theaters, folk opera gardens in guild halls and stages in temples. These different kinds of theaters were located in different areas of Beijing. Royal theaters were mainly located in the Forbidden City. However, the Summer Palace outside of the Forbidden City also had its own royal theater. Government-funded opera gardens were mainly located in the mansions of various aristocrats and bureaucrats in the Inner City of Beijing, such as the famous garden at Prince Kung’s mansion. Opera gardens in guild halls were mainly located in the Outer City of old Beijing, supported by thanes, merchants and some officials. Commercial tea garden theaters were also mainly found in the Outer City and later expanded gradually into the Inner City (Fig. 1.2).
Fig. 1.1

Left: Map of Beijing in 1914 (the early years of the Republic of China). Right: Spatial structure of Beijing City during the Qing Dynasty (Forbidden City, Imperial City, Inner City and Outer City)

Fig. 1.2

Distribution of Beijing’s major theaters during the Qing Dynasty.

Source Li (1998)

Influenced by the style of occidental theaters, large-stage theaters began to appear among commercial theaters at the end of the 19th century. Later in the 1920s, the early years of the Republic of China, Western theaters were first opened in Beijing, such as Zhenguang (true light) Theater (currently the China National Theater for Children) in Wangfujing and Kaiming Theater in Zhushikou. The city of Beijing maintained its urban spatial structure and scope until the early years of the Republic of China. Its main streets were mostly situated within an area that resembled a “凸” shape on the map (constituting the districts in the current Second Ring Road of Beijing) and its urban spatial structure consisted primarily of the Inner City, the Outer City, the Imperial City and the Forbidden City with a clear central axis (Hou 1988).

Early in the Qing Dynasty, almost all folk theaters were clustered in the south of Beijing. However, at the end of the Qing Dynasty, they were finally able to start their gradual expansion into the Inner City (Li 1998). The folk theaters in the city had several major gathering areas. All of these areas were commercial districts, implying a connection between commercial theaters and urban business areas. Thus, commercial theaters ultimately became the dominant theater type in Beijing (Figs. 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 and 1.6).
Fig. 1.3

Left: Planar view of Prince Kung’s Mansion. Right: Aerial view of Prince Kung’s Mansion (the theater is located in the backyard garden)

Fig. 1.4

Elevation view of Beijing’s Huguang Guild Hall

Fig. 1.5

Private commercial theater from the Qing Dynasty

Fig. 1.6

Two theaters of the early 20th century. Left: Beijing Kaiming Theater. Right: Zhenguang Theater (China National Theater for Children)

After the Republic of China was established, the Forbidden City was no longer the municipal center of politics but a historical legacy and cultural symbol. The administrative area of the city expanded across the Inner City. In spite of the political areas, the urban spatial distribution of commercial theaters was maintained.

1.2 Two Types of Theaters in the 1950s

After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the new regime enhanced the status of the performing arts to an unprecedented level. As the state’s capital, Beijing embarked on a process of continual historical change. An important architectural type, theaters gained a new role in the development of Beijing. This stemmed from the changes in the political system after 1949, which led to the end of commercial theaters and the emergence of state-owned theaters dominated by political factors. Theaters were transformed from commercial buildings used for entertainment to venues used for arts and publicity serving political needs. The previous folk and entertainment attributes of theaters were completely altered. Furthermore, theaters gradually became an important place for the government. The scale, form and spatial location of theaters all completely rid themselves of their past folk label. Theaters occupied a major urban space and became one of Beijing’s main architectural forms.

Throughout the 1950s, the development of theaters in Beijing City experienced a historical short-lived construction climax. As the capital of the new regime, the construction of theaters began immediately after its establishment. The driving forces for the development of theaters at the time, in addition to the needs of the performing arts, were more related to the political publicity of arts and the functional needs of a new social managerial space model. Two kinds of theaters existed in the 1950s: (1) professional and urban public theaters and (2) multifunctional enterprises and institution-owned auditoriums or clubs (Table 1.1). For urban theaters, the opera gardens of the past (mainly intended for opera performances) could not satisfy the needs of the newly formed performing arts, such as singing, dancing and drama. Moreover, as a means of publicity, the performing arts required more and bigger theaters. At the same time, social changes introduced a new unit space for the working and living compounds of enterprises and institutions in the country, which required appropriate theaters for conferences, assemblies and entertainment. The differences in the spatial distribution and identity of these two types of theater include their form, scale, level of investment, technology and equipment.
Table 1.1

Two theater types in Beijing City in the 1950s


Urban public theaters

Theaters in the living compounds of enterprises and institutions of the country (e.g., auditoriums and clubs)

Space distribution

Urban public space

In the living compounds of enterprises and institutions of the country





Comparatively large

Suitable for its actual situation


Mainly for professional performances



Performing art troupes

The Communist Party, Central Government and Central Army Forces, enterprises and institutions of the country



Internal members of enterprises and institutions of the country; rarely open to the public

Amount of investment







Fully equipped


Traditional opera gardens stagnated, without any further development. The new theaters that emerged during this period were mainly proscenium theaters. A strong desire and demand for the modern equipment of theatrical stages and technology arose. This was especially true for urban public theaters. The changes in theatrical architecture paralleled the changes in Beijing’s urban space. The forms, scales and locations of theaters underwent great change. Beijing’s urban space continued to change as well. Such changes, from the old blocks, gradually expanded outward and remain present.

1.3 Urban Theaters, Auditoriums and Beijing City

In the 1950s, Beijing experienced a boom in theater construction (Table 1.2). With the incoming regime, one of the motivations for heavily increasing theater construction was to meet the needs of a number of performing art troupes and arts academies in Beijing. After the introduction of Soviet theaters with performing art troupes, the demand for theater construction seemed more reasonable. The second motivation was to fulfill the needs of foreign art troupes that might perform in Beijing and to be able to host special receptions (Table 1.3). A final reason was to be able to host the conferences of important government departments.
Table 1.2

Newly built theaters in Beijing City in the 1950s



Completion year




The Central Academy of Drama Xiaojingchang Theater


West Xiaojingchang Hutong, west of the Xicheng Gate Intersection, Dongcheng District



The Rehearsal Field in the General Political Department of the PLA


Deshengmen South, North Second Round Road, Xicheng District

Rebuilt into the PLA Opera House


Tianqiao Theater


Tianqiao, Xuanwu District



Beijing Exhibition Theater

Rebuilt in 1954


North of Xizhimenwai Street, Xicheng District

Still in use


Beijing Friendship Hotel Theater


West of Zhongguancun South Street, Haidian District

Still in use


People’s Theater


Huguo Temple Road South, Xicheng District

Still in use


Beijing Workers Club


Southwest of the Crossroads of Hufang Bridge, Xuanwu District

Still in use


CPPCC Auditorium


South side of Baita Temple Street, Fucheng Gate, Xicheng District

Still in use


Capital Theater


East of Wangfujing Street, Dongcheng District

Still in use


The Rehearsal Field at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts


National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts in Liren Street, Xuanwu District

Demolished and rebuilt


Great Hall of the People


West side of Tiananmen Square

Still in use


Cultural Palace of Nationalities


North of Fuxingmennei Street, Xicheng District

Still in use


Wudaokou Workers Club


North of Chengfu Road, Wudaokou, Haidian District

Still in use


Central Conservatory of Music


Central Conservatory of Music, Xicheng District

Remodeled and in use.


February 7 Theater


North of Fuxingmenwai Street, Xicheng District

Demolished and rebuilt

Table 1.3

Theaters for the residing performing art troupes in the 1950s



Resident troupe



Tianqiao Theater

Experimental Songs & Dances Theater of China (currently the Ballet of China)

Built in the 1950s


People’s Theater

China Peking Opera Theater


Capital Theater

Beijing People’s Art Theater


February 7 Theater

Ministry of Railways Art Troupe


Youth Palace Theater

China Youth Art Theater


Beijing Workers Club

Beijing Peking Opera Theater


Folk Theater (the original site of Tianleyuan)

China Pingju Opera Theater

Built before 1949


Xidan Theater (the original site of Haerfei Theater)

Northern Kunqu Opera Theater


Beijing Theater (Zhenguang Theater)

China National Theater for Children


Qingle Theater

Beijing Acrobatic Troupe

Several theaters were built as a result of such demand. One example is Capital Theater, which was owned by the Beijing People’s Art Theater. A second example is Tianqiao Theater, which was built to meet the performance needs of Soviet art troupes or Beijing Friendship Hotel, which undertook foreign guest receptions, and its associated theaters. A third example is the CPPCC auditoriums built to hold the CPPCC National Conference and related performances (Fig. 1.7).
Fig. 1.7

Two theaters in the 1950s. Left: Tianqiao Theater in 1954 (Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University). Right: CPPCC Auditorium in 1956

No special layout was defined for the distribution of these theaters in Beijing. It was mainly determined by the districts of the institutions to which the theaters belonged. As the former Imperial City districts were occupied by important government departments, new urban theaters could not be built there. Therefore, the Inner City and Outer City districts became the primary choices for the construction of urban theaters. In light of this, the old business district in the old blocks became the primary area of construction for Tianqiao Theater, Capital Theater and the People’s Theater. This choice formed a trend in the construction of Beijing’s theaters. Yet, urban administrative districts gradually became popular areas of construction for subsequent urban theaters. This issue is discussed later.

Due to inadequate space in the old street blocks, the construction of new urban theaters began in districts close to but outside of them, with convenient traffic. At this time, the west side of the old blocks became the construction area of many government agencies, such as the districts of Sanli River and Baiwanzhuang. The government’s administrative districts in the old blocks mainly occupied the former Imperial City, the later Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Street, forming a line. The expansion of urban theaters outside of the old blocks of Beijing is clearly consistent with that of the new regime districts.

Although the scales of these urban theaters were not comparable to that of the unfinished National Center for the Performing Arts, they far exceeded the scales of the pre-1949 folk commercial theaters (Fig. 1.8). Moreover, most urban theaters were independent and maintained a certain distance from the surrounding buildings. They were entirely different from the previous commercial theaters and were completely unrelated to commerciality.
Fig. 1.8

Layout of Beijing’s major theaters, Auditoriums and cultural palaces in the 1950s. Red dot: theaters; blue dot: auditoriums and cultural halls

Theater complexes appeared in the 1950s. The designs of the Beijing Exhibition Theater, the Beijing Friendship Hotel Theater and the Cultural Palace of Nationalities integrated the features of theaters, hotels and exhibitions. These complexes were government-dominant instead of private. Theaters were incorporated and hidden in these complexes. Being of large scale and great significance, these complexes were recognized as regional landmark buildings in Beijing.

Auditoriums and halls are another type of theater. They exist in large numbers in enterprises, government departments/institutions and military compounds in Beijing. The number of such theaters is estimated to be at least 20% more than that of professional theaters. Due to their relative separation from the public space of the city, many auditoriums have become hidden theaters in Beijing.

After 1949, a type of residential space called “unit compounds” (danwei dayuan) came into existence in Beijing (Lian 2015). Such compounds were the units of the Party, the central government and the Central Army Forces and occupied the urban space of Beijing in such mode. A number of compound complexes emerged in Beijing City. Such space colony units once dominated the urban space of Beijing for a long time. Compounds were initially distributed mainly in the districts near the periphery of the Imperial City. Once entering these places, people might have felt as though they were independent towns, usually within enclosed courtyard walls with layouts of living, working, entertainment and other building facilities. There were several types of compounds: those of government agencies, Army Forces, factories and schools. In these compounds, the closure of the space by a wall was obvious and clearly indicated domain boundaries. Compounds became a major spatial unit of Beijing City. However, they contributed little to the city’s public space. In such compounds, auditoriums often became major buildings. They were a special type of theater and were combined with the compounds. Of course, the auditoriums in compounds usually had quite inadequate equipment. In addition to conferences, they were often used for the performing arts and playing movies (Figs. 1.9, 1.10).
Fig. 1.9

State Administration of Radio Television Auditorium. Left: Building in 1954. Right: Satellite View in 2018

Fig. 1.10

Distribution of the major auditoriums in the district of Sanli River. Right: Red Tower Auditorium (State Planning Commission Auditorium)

Auditoriums sometimes open to the public include the Geological Department Auditorium, the Materials Department Auditorium, the CPPCC Auditorium and the State Planning Commission Auditorium.

As mentioned, the State Planning Commission Auditorium in Sanli River Block is also known as the Red Tower Auditorium. This auditorium is one of the many buildings in the compounds of the State Planning Commission. It was designed in 1953 in accordance with Soviet drawings. Auditoriums were typically situated in office, residence and entertainment buildings and in other similar venues. In the early days of the reform and opening up, the Red Tower Auditorium was used for the visiting performances of the famous Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa and Boston Symphony Orchestra. It had good acoustic quality and was once famous for holding such performances in Beijing.

The construction climax of auditoriums began in the 1950s as a result of the different departments of the new regime occupying different districts of Beijing. First, the most important departments of the Party, government and Army Forces divided their respective grounds across the space of the Imperial City and the Inner City. Yet, the establishment of some government departments and agencies was not possible. Therefore, new administrative districts were established outside of the city. The areas along the west side of the Inner City, such as Sanli River, Baiwanzhuang and Shatan, were also important administrative areas of Beijing. These places were even referred to as the invisible centers of Beijing. They were home to many important government ministries, such as the State Planning Commission, the Ministry of Geology, the Ministry of Heavy Industry, the First Ministry of Machinery Industry and the Second Ministry of Machinery Industry.

The auditoriums of such compounds were usually built inside each compound for its own use. Although some auditoriums were hidden within compounds, some were located in the suburbs of the city. As such, it was difficult to see such theaters on the streets of the city. Some of these theaters were in urban public spaces and were even open to the public as urban public facilities, such as the Wudaokou Workers Club, which was a major theater in Haidian District at the time that originally belonged to the Beijing Municipal Trade Union. After several renovations, it remains in use today.

Throughout the 1950s, the number of theaters in Beijing was incredibly high (Wang 1959). However, there were few specialized theaters and, according to scholarly statistics, more than 200 auditorium buildings. Some buildings in factories were generally referred to as clubs (i.e., instead of auditoriums).

The combination of the auditorium and the compound became a spatial model for almost all social institutions. This model was adopted by almost all government ministries, factories, schools and research institutes. Some people even criticized that it was the auditorium culture that developed theaters in Beijing during that period. Auditoriums combined with compounds are still present in some universities and military colleges in Beijing. After 1980, with the economic reform and opening up, the spaces of those compounds in Beijing began to disintegrate. With urban renewal and real estate development, many original compounds were gradually opened to the public and were prepared for reintegration into the city. Numerous auditorium buildings built in the 1950s also changed dramatically in this process. Although some were demolished and some were rebuilt, many of them remain in use today. In Beijing City, the term “auditorium” once referred to a special public building during the era of compounds. It is now used to describe a special theater history in Beijing (Table 1.4).
Table 1.4

Famous auditoriums run by state-owned companies or governmental departments in Beijing in the 1950s



Number of seats


Tong County Workers Club



White Paper Workshop Auditorium



211 Factory Workers Theater (in the Ministry of Astronautics Industry)



Fengtai Bridge Factory Auditorium



27 Workers Palace of Culture



Yongding Club



Beijing Power Plant Club



Chinese Academy of Sciences Auditorium in Zhongguancun



Nanhu Canal Bricks Plant Auditorium



51 Theater of Shougang Group



Tuqiao Bricks and Tiles Plant Auditorium



Mentougou Workers Club



Hongxia Theater (738 Factory)



Dongtieying Club & Workers Palace of Culture



Xinjiekou Club



Dongcheng Workers Club



Beijing Coking Plant Theater



Electronic Tube Factory Theater



The 5th Workers Club in Hepingli



Labor Theater of All-China Federation of Trade Unions



Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources Auditorium


1.4 Unbuilt National Center for the Performing Arts in the 1950s

The National Center for the Performing Arts was Beijing’s largest urban theater under planning in the 1950s. Being a national theater, it differed from other urban theaters in many ways.

The National Center for the Performing Arts was initiated in 1958. It was one of the projects planned for the 10th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. At the same time, the Great Leap Forward Movement (1958–1960) was occurring in China. Furthermore, China joined the Soviet-led socialist camp. As such, the main recommendations of the Soviet planning experts program were adopted in Beijing’s urban construction planning. In light of this, a new form of urban planning in Beijing emerged. The main task of this planning was to update and renovate the old blocks based on their location. The planning determined the next administrative and cultural districts, including the construction of Beijing’s central districts, such as the planning of Tiananmen Square and Chang’an Street (Zhao 1959a). Fortunately, the National Center for the Performing Arts was honored to be on the project list of the main building construction in Beijing’s central districts.

In this urban planning, the National Center for the Performing Arts was placed in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square, which represents the highest authority of China and is adjoined to the Great Hall of the People, forming a center for both political and cultural buildings. This construction program was approved by the highest leaders of China at the time. Outside of the Forbidden City, Beijing’s new urban center was launched, gradually becoming a model of the city center (Fig. 1.11).
Fig. 1.11

Model of the National Center for the Performing Arts in 1958 (the fifth person on the right is Jiang Nanxiang, the president of Tsinghua University).

Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

After the 1990s, this model was widely imitated in many cities across China. It ultimately became the officially designated and most-used urban space model. Nowadays, it is said that this urban center model is “three dishes and one soup” or “four dishes and one soup.” The so-called “soup” refers to the square and the so-called “dishes” refer to the buildings around the square, such as government buildings, theaters, museums, libraries and memorials.

In 1958, the National Center for the Performing Arts project began on the west side of the Great Hall of the People. It was adjacent to Chang’an Street and originally a political district of both the Ming and Qing Dynasties in the south of the Forbidden City. During the planning of the new Beijing City, many old blocks were demolished. All of the main buildings in this place, such as the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China and Tiananmen Square, were newly built after the demolition of the old buildings in the original Imperial City (Figs. 1.12, 1.13). The National Center for the Performing Arts project was involved in the urban renewal. However, compared to the Great Hall of the People, it was subordinate. The large-scale buildings were quite different from the traditional courtyard buildings and palaces of the past. Such disparity in both form and space became a symbol of the new era.
Fig. 1.12

Aerial photograph of Tiananmen Square in 1959 (with the National Center for the Performing Arts on the top left corner).

Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

Fig. 1.13

Left: Tiananmen Square during the Qing Dynasty. Right: Plan of Tiananmen Square in the 1950s.

Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

One person famous for advocating the protection of the old blocks of Beijing was Liang Sicheng (1901–1972) . He opposed the demolition of the city walls, gates, archways and streets. Some of his arguments were perceived as outdated and were even heavily criticized as bourgeois academic views. His awkward situation made him a famous architect who was not involved in the design of grand national projects, but just as a design consultant. Liang was the founder of the Department of Architecture at Tsinghua University and was the dean of the department at that time. Ironically, there was no place for him on the Tsinghua University design team for the National Center for the Performing Arts. The team leader was one of his former students, Li Daozeng, a young teacher of 27 years old who was followed by a group of young teachers and students. Encouraged by the Great Leap Forward Movement, these young people were enthusiastic and completed the National Center for the Performing Arts design in a very short time, which was recognized by the official government (Li 2011) (Fig. 1.14).
Fig. 1.14

Design team of Tsinghua University with the Tiananmen Square Model in 1958.

Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

The main source of inspiration was Anhaltisches Theater in East Germany. In 1957, an art troupe sent by the Chinese government toured the socialist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and visited this theater. The design of theater was recorded by a young stage-art designer, Li Chang, and his colleagues and was introduced into China. Anhaltisches Theater had extensive stage space and owned advanced stage equipment that Chinese entertainers had never seen before. It was considered to be representative of advanced theaters and was highly recognized by the officials of the Chinese Ministry of Culture. Today, it is well-known that German and European theaters and their architecture serve the upper class. They are quite different from the commercial theaters of Broadway in New York and the West End in London, whether in the scale, form or planning of the city as to the building (Fig. 1.15).
Fig. 1.15

Anhaltisches Theater, Dessau, East Germany (role model for the National Center for the Performing Arts)

The East German Theater sought by the National Center for the Performing Arts was a typical independent European opera house. In this design, the architecture of such a European opera house and its spatial relationship with the city were introduced together for the first time to Beijing (China). This site selection was neither based on commercial factors nor a technical factor in urban design or urban planning, but was mainly governed by political motivations.

What was the logic beyond this juxtaposition of theaters with the political parliament building (which represents the institution’s highest authority—the Great Hall of the People) in the center of the city? Explaining such a city center model, which is currently prevalent in cities across China, may require addressing the relationship between the attributes of theaters and urban space. The attributes of a theater cannot be separated from the functions it carries—that is, as a venue for the performing arts, such as operas or dramas. In the traditional ideas of Chinese people, the purpose of orthodox drama is not entertainment but education. Ordinary people must be educated through arts and drama. During the May 4th Movement, this concept was once again amplified by many educated intelligentsias. Chen Duxiu (1879–1942), a politician and thinker, said theaters could become a classroom for educating the masses. This concept was actually inherited by the later ruling Party. Chairman Mao once expressed many opinions about the function of literature and arts. Central to his thinking was that literature and arts should be used for publicity in society and to educate people. The theater is of course the camp of the performing arts to educate people (Fig. 1.16).
Fig. 1.16

Elevation of the Great Hall of the People.

Source Su (1964). Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

Another kind of entertainment-oriented theater in China’s history was the folk commercial theater, which had a binary relationship with the theater attributes mentioned above. Entertainment and education, or business and politics, are dual attributes that have led to two distinct phenomena of the relationship whether in the form of theater architecture or its urban space. As discussed above, Beijing has two kinds of theaters with different urban spatial relationships. One is that the political center forms the core space of the city and the other is that the commercial center forms the core space of the city.

In the history of Beijing’s urban development, the first instance of implementing this model and enhancing the political status of theaters to an unprecedented level was no other than the site selection of the National Center for the Performing Arts. Adjacent to the previous political center, the Forbidden City, the central district of Beijing City was combined with the new political center, the Great Hall of the People and Tiananmen Square.

During the Qing Dynasty, there were no specialized stages in the Forbidden City. Small venues for the Emperor’s entertainment did exist, but they were informal theater buildings that were hidden in the solemn sequence space of the Forbidden City. The Royal Grand Theater was in the Summer Palace. Although there was some space for the Emperors’ office there, it was not a formal political building.

Here we examine the analysis of the theater form in the 1958 program of the National Center for the Performing Arts. It took some forms of occidental classical architecture and was clearly consistent with the architectural style advocated by the Soviet architectural community at the time. The so-called socialist content of architecture has also been discussed in academic Chinese architectural journals (Zhao 1959b).

Under the influence of domestic politics in the 1950s, the Chinese architectural community was in wandering with a series of official guidelines on architectural art. These official architectural art guidelines were not always consistent. In a word, Western modernist architecture was criticized by the authority as being a product of capitalism. In the early 1950s, Liang Sicheng, who advocated traditional architectural forms, was also criticized for wasting money and materials. He was perceived as a representative of the old era. Surprisingly, in celebration of the 10th anniversary of National Day in 1958, the Chinese traditional architectural style and occidental classical architectural style were upheld. Such buildings were regarded as having architectural styles of socialism and national forms (The Theater of The Palace of Nationalities and the National Art Museum of China adopted traditional architectural forms). The architectural style of the National Center for the Performing Arts was consistent with that of the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China, all using Western classical forms. Liang Sicheng, who objected the design proposal, was once again criticized by the authority.

In 1958, the National Center for the Performing Arts project proposed by the Tsinghua University design team implied a number of fade designs, all in the form of classic occidental architecture (Fig. 1.17).
Fig. 1.17

Design scheme of the National Center for the Performing Arts in 1958

This was mainly the result of official-oriented politics. Moreover, the highest leaders were directly involved with the guidance of the design. There were some memories and narratives about the design history of the National Center for the Performing Arts and how the then Premier Zhou Enlai (1898–1976) guided the design. For example, for the project of the National Center for the Performing Arts designed by the Tsinghua design team, through the report Premier Zhou Enlai provided specific guidance on many occasions. He recommended decorating the facade of the theater fly tower on the colonnade and designed the interior space of the auditorium. Premier Zhou Enlai even invited North Korea’s highest leader, Kim Il Sung, who visited China to take a look at the program of the National Center for the Performing Arts and told him smugly that it was designed under his guidance. In fact, the renovation of all of Beijing City and the design of the main buildings were approved by the highest leaders (Fig. 1.18).
Fig. 1.18

Left: Tsinghua design team presenting the National Day Projects Design Scheme to Premier Zhou Enlai. Right: Zhou Enlai and Kim Il Sung visiting the model of National Center for the Performing Arts.

Source Reference Library of School of Architecture, Tsinghua University

The Great Leap Forward Movement in 1958 led to an unforgettable disaster that directly halted the project of the National Center for the Performing Arts. At the time, construction had begun and a large amount of earth had been excavated. This left a huge foundation pit, which was maintained for approximately 40 years. Its wall blocked this place, forming an interface for Chang’an Street for a long time. The Great Hall of the People is the symbol of the supreme authority and its Great Hall of Ten Thousand, as well as other auditoriums, serves both as a lecture hall and a performing theater. In fact, it has become the highest-status performance venue.

In other considerations of Chang’an Street thereafter, such as the planning of 1964, the National Center for the Performing Arts was once located on the west side of the street, far away from the Great Hall of the People. However, such planning was not implemented (Fig. 1.19).
Fig. 1.19

Left: Scheme of Chang’an Avenue proposed by the Tsinghua University design team in 1964 (the Cultural Palace of Nationalities and its theaters). Right: Scheme of Chang’an Avenue proposed by Tsinghua University in 1964 (Tiananmen Square)

1.5 Upsurge in Theaters in Beijing Post-1980s

In 1978, China began to implement the reform and opening up policy. The construction of Beijing’s theaters ushered in another climax after the early 1980s (Zhao 1989). A large number of modern theaters were built during this period and both the theater scale and investment far exceeded those of the past. Urban expansion and old city transformation provided an opportunity for the new development of theaters (Urban Planning Teaching and Research Division of School of Architecture 1980). Meanwhile, the reform and opening up policy contributed to the import of foreign capital, technology, art and ideas. Land policy adjustment and real estate development also greatly promoted theater construction.

With Haidian District and Chaoyang District in the northern part of Beijing having gradually become the key areas for urban expansion, the development of theaters clearly kept pace with the construction of these emerging regions. For example, Poly Theater was constructed in the Dongsi Shitiao Embassy District, Century Theater was constructed in the Yansha Business Circle, Beijing Theater was constructed in the Asian Games Village and Haidian Theater was constructed in the Zhongguancun Business District (Lv 2006).

After the 1980s, theater development in Beijing demonstrated new features. Theaters were no longer greatly involved in serving political purposes and partly resumed their commercial nature. In spite of this, the commercial nature in this period was quite different from a large number of private commercial theaters in Beijing before 1949. In the 1980s, the main body of theater construction still consisted of government-administered institutions rather than private institutions. Such government-administered institutions had more funds and land. Another kind of theater that was combined with commercial buildings appeared, namely a combination of theaters and hotels or office buildings. It should be noted that theater complexes appeared early in the 1950s. The Cultural Palace Theater and the Beijing Friendship Hotel Theater are both of such kind. All such theater complexes were government-dominant non-commercial buildings.

This type of theater model emerged because in the process of urban renewal and expansion, social capital and previous unit compound land were integrated into real estate speculations to achieve higher profits. This reflects the disintegration of the spatial pattern of the unit compounds in Beijing, especially the art troupe units originally allocated in the old quarter after the reform and opening up. The land value of art troupe units rapidly increased, resulting in greedy land and real estate property speculations. Another type of commercial operation—building a theater to increase attractiveness—also led to the emergence of commercial theater complexes. Such incorporation of theaters and commercial buildings into complexes is similar to the many casino complexes in Las Vegas. Due to the intensity of land exploitation and pursuit of commercial value, this type of theater complex is often large in scale, occupies a prominent location and becomes a prominent landmark. However, the conspicuous part of this type of theater complex is the commercial high-rise building, with the theater formally attached to or even hidden inside of the building. As for the architecture form, such a theater is completely different from government-led independent theaters.

After the reform and opening up, Beijing’s first project combining theaters and commercial buildings was the Oriental Singing and Dancing Troupe Theater. This project ultimately failed to combine a commercial building and theater. In terms of its implementation, it was originally a theater project for the Oriental Singing and Dancing Troupe. Then, due to capital investment from Hong Kong, a high-rise Hilton Hotel building was added. However, after construction was completed, the investor hoped that the theater could be changed into a nightclub as an entertainment facility for the hotel. This led to the theater being shut down after conflict with government administration. Several years later, the theater was changed into an office building. Finally, the capital achieved victory.

Poly Theater and Meilanfang Theater are two successful cases. The two projects incorporating a theater and hotel constitute another type of theater model based on commercial property. Other similar cases include Chang’an Grand Theater (Fig. 1.20).
Fig. 1.20

Left: Rendering of the Hilton Hotel and the unfinished Oriental Singing and Dancing Troupe Theater. Middle: Poly Theater. Right: Meilanfang Theater

Another theater case incorporating a high-rise office building is Century Theater in the Sino-Japan Exchange Center, a project sponsored by the Japanese government in the 1980s. Japanese architect Kurokawa Kisho designed this theater. The complex model used was similar to that mentioned before that combined a high-rise hotel and theater. However, this project was not a product of commercial development.

The theater renovation project was another event that occurred during this period. Specifically, some old theaters retained their facades but transformed all of their other parts, such as Children’s Theater, whereas other original theaters were completely demolished and rebuilt in situ, such as Tianqiao Theater. These constitute another kind of Beijing theater.

As for the auditorium buildings of unit compounds, great changes took place during the process of reform and opening up. The fate of various unit compounds was quite different. In general, the unit compound space model disintegrated and most auditoriums declined. Some were demolished and some were used for other purposes. Some were completely turned into urban theaters. However, not all unit compounds were transformed. The unit compound model on university campuses remains intact. Furthermore, new progress was made in theater construction. Two famous university theaters are Peking University’s Centennial Hall and Tsinghua University’s New Tsinghua Auditorium. Both are large theaters open to the public with over 2000 seats and good facilities. Each has become the center of its respective campus (Fig. 1.21).
Fig. 1.21

Left: Peking University Centennial Hall. Right: New Tsinghua Auditorium

In addition, some military compounds have been preserved and more theaters have been built. Some of them have even become urban theaters that are completely open to the public, such as the PLA Opera House and Chinese Theater.

1.6 National Center for the Performing Arts

More than 20 years after its stagnation in 1958, the Ministry of Culture resumed preparation for the National Center for the Performing Arts project in 1986. Due to the length of time that passed, the government had to re-examine the project’s feasibility. By then, the development of theaters in Western countries had greatly changed and new famous theaters had been built. Since China’s reform and opening up in 1978, learning from the West had become a government-dominated policy, quite different from learning from the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Learning from Western modern architecture became a new trend. Around 1988, a special group of the Ministry of Culture visited a number of theaters in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan and other countries and collected many theater design materials (Lu 2009). Finally, the group chose the Kennedy Performing Arts Center of the United States as its learning model. This model, which originated from German theaters, reflected the Beijing government’s vision. As such, the construction of the National Center for the Performing Arts followed the German theater model (Fig. 1.22).
Fig. 1.22

Manuscript of Wei Dazhong, famous architect and theater researcher, while visiting American theaters in 1989

Around 1990, the Ministry of Culture also commissioned a number of design and research institutes for the feasibility schemes of the National Center for the Performing Arts. Of the schemes, that of Professor Li Daozeng’s team is worth mentioning. Li Daozeng was the main designer of the National Center for the Performing Arts in 1958. The plane of this scheme was similar to that of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts. That is, it had three main juxtaposed theaters. In the scheme of Professor Li, the main entrances of the three theaters face toward the north and south. This arrangement highlights the north and south facade design and the accessibility of the building. Specifically, the north and south orientation of the main entrances helped establish a closer connection with the urban space. Another aspect of Li’s scheme that is worth mentioning is that the facade design still followed the idea of the 1950s, adopting the architectural style similar to that of the Great Hall of the People (Figs. 1.23, 1.24). In 1997, official domestic design tendering for the National Center for the Performing Arts began. Professor Li also participated and again proposed a similar scheme. However, under the background of the reform and opening up, learning from the West had become popular. This completely changed the architectural style of the National Center for the Performing Arts near Tiananmen Square.
Fig. 1.23

Left: Feasible site plan of the National Center for the Performing Arts. Right: Planar graph of the first floor in the 1993 scheme

Fig. 1.24

Professor Li Daozeng’s schemes. Left: 1993. Right: 1997

The international design competition was officially held in 1998. In this project, the design scheme of the National Center for the Performing Arts focused much attention on the introduction of theater styles, such as opera houses, concert halls and experimental theaters originating from Europe. In the design of French architect Paul Andreu that was ultimately adopted, the plane layout follows that of the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in the United States and the form follows the style of the Sydney Opera House, which separates its form and function with three theaters covered by a huge metal shell. This is indeed a wonderful combination.

During the design competition of the National Center for the Performing Arts, the site expansion considerably changed the design proposals. The range of the site continued to expand southward, giving the theater more outdoor space such that the relationship between the theater and the surrounding environment changed significantly. At first, the theater faced the street. This gradually changed into the theater being on the northern side of the square. Finally, the theater was surrounded by open space and formed an east-west axis relationship with the Great Hall of the People. The design of the National Center for the Performing Arts not only strengthens its own position as an independent building, but also intensifies its connection with the Great Hall of the People. This result is in full compliance with the official position of the National Center for the Performing Arts that the building be a venue for both the performing arts and politics. It also satisfies the educational function of theaters in traditional Chinese culture.

Notably, Paul Andreu (1938–2018) boldly placed the theater on the east-west axis, which was opposite the western facade of the Great Hall of the People, aligning the axis of the two buildings. Therefore, the client decided to expand the site boundary toward the south and demolished more old buildings on the southern side of the original site (Figs. 1.25, 1.26 and 1.27).
Fig. 1.25

Site changes of the National Center for the Performing Arts

Fig. 1.26

The Tsinghua design team and the Andreu design team at Aéroports de Paris in 1999 (the author is the first person seated on the left)

Fig. 1.27

National Center for the Performing Arts a from Xirongxian Hutong. b The main elevation; c opera house; d lobby. bd courtesy of Fu Xing

The architectural approach of Andreu’s scheme once caused great controversy (Zhou 2009). Using a huge outer shell to cover three theaters emphasizes the great uniqueness of the scale and form of the theater. Compared with other significant previously constructed buildings nearby, such as the Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People, there are huge differences in scale and form. Accepting this futuristic Western modern architecture may reflect the official mind-set of opening up. The separation of the huge outer shell from the inner theater actually represents the different value objectives of this building’s form and functions. In terms of architectural form, the huge outer shell makes the theater one of Beijing’s landmarks. Due to its strong contrast with the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People, Hutong and courtyards in terms of scale, material, color and geometry, the National Center for the Performing Arts represents another epochal symbol of Beijing’s urban transformation. In terms of architectural functions, the design of the National Center for the Performing Arts, which adopts the American performing arts center model, incorporates different professional theater types into a comprehensive complex, which is consistent with the ideas of modernization and “advanced culture” advocated by the government after the reform and opening up. The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts is considered to represent an advanced theater concept, one that is the direct cause of the large scale of the National Center for the Performing Arts. The National Center for the Performing Arts has become the largest theater building in Beijing (and even in China) and has changed the urban fabric of this region.

Furthermore, the urban design of the National Center for the Performing Arts has become the design pattern of China’s urban centers, popularized and imitated by many cities across China. Many cities have tried to combine performing arts buildings with other types of cultural buildings, government buildings and city squares to form the central parts of cities. This model has permeated many cities around the world, especially in China, where people prefer to follow the example of superiors. This results in a number of urban core areas with cultural and art centers adjacent to the administrative center. In short, this model has had a major impact on the design of the urban centers of Chinese cities.

1.7 Conclusion

In the 1950s, the era of Beijing’s commercial theater ended and a completely different theater era started. At the time, political factors dominated the construction of theaters. The spatial layout of Beijing’s theaters was in accordance with the spatial distribution of administrative power. The top National Center for the Performing Arts located near Tiananmen Square and many theaters of art troupes situated in the inner and western parts of Beijing City reflected this feature, with building distributions basically independent of commercial nature. The spatial distribution of auditoriums of unit compounds also followed this principle. The land of different locations was allocated according to a unit’s level and scale. This became the basis for the distribution of the hidden auditoriums in Beijing.

Western-style theaters became the leading theaters in Beijing and were significantly larger in scale than the traditional ones. Most newly built theaters in Beijing existed as independent theaters, indicating that theaters assumed a more important position in urban life.

To study theaters in Beijing after the 1980s, the reform and opening up must be considered. The transformation of Beijing’s old city and the rapid city expansion (Zuo et al. 1996) facilitated the development of theaters. With the intervention of real estate development and external capital, the originally solidified unit compound began to collapse. Some old auditoriums of unit compounds gradually declined, but the unit compound model of the military and colleges still exists and new theaters have been built. Some art institutes have tried to adopt integrated utilization of the land of unit compounds and the external capital to build commercial theater complexes. There has also been a moderately strong tendency to re-commercialize theaters. However, when beginning to recognize the commercial value brought about by theaters, investors actively set up theaters in commercial buildings to increase their commercial appeal and value, such that a series of large urban theater complexes emerged.

The National Center for the Performing Arts reflects the government’s recognition of the value of theaters. It is the highest-level combination of national culture, art and politics, with such recognition implemented in the urban space design. It has become part of a city centerpiece that also consists of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese History Museum, the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall and the Monument to the People’s Heroes. It is a typical example of politically dominant theaters and represents official theater values. Furthermore, it facilitated the complete construction of the unrealized Beijing City center in the late 1950s. Ultimately, it has helped form a core urban model that combines performing arts architecture and political centers, which has greatly affected other cities in China.

In recent years, based on cultural tourism and real estate development, the local governments of different areas of Beijing have also promoted their own cultural construction. For example, in Chongwen District and Xicheng District, plans have been made to build a new Tianqiao and Tiantan Performing Arts Zone in the Tianqiao area and to establish a large number of theater communities. This would revitalize the previously famous Beijing Opera City Park and ultimately develop a theater gathering area similar to Broadway or the West End. Other administrative districts in Beijing also have similar plans to set up theaters. These new trends are expected to once again change the relationship between Beijing’s theaters and urban space (Ai et al. 2008) (Figs. 1.28, 1.29).
Fig. 1.28

Several theaters and their surroundings in Beijing City in different periods (drawn in the same scale). a Three tea garden theaters on Dashilan Commercial Street. b The theater in Prince Kung’s Mansion. c Dehe Yuan Theater in Summer Palace. d People’s Theater. e China National Theater Children (Zhen’guang Theater). f Beijing Workers Club. g The State Planning Commission Auditorium (Red Tower Auditorium) in Sanli River Block. h The State Administration of the Radio Television Auditorium. i Tian’anmen Square and the National Center for the Performing Arts

Fig. 1.29

Comparison of the elevation scales of major theaters in Beijing during different periods



The author thanks Lily Wang and Cong Guo for their drafts and gives special thanks to Zonglie Sun, Fuhe Zhang and Chunmei Li for providing very important materials. Without their help, the author could not have completed this chapter.

In 1984, I became an architectural student at Tsinghua University . I came from Guiyang in Southwest China to Beijing for the first time during the early years of the open-door policy. The first time I saw a theatre in Beijing was the auditorium designed by American architect Henry Murphy in the 1920s on the Tsinghua campus. Outside the south gate of Tsinghua was a vegetable field. Wudaokou, a prosperous sub-centre today, was a generic and narrow street then, flanked by shanty shops. Crossing the railway, there was the Wudaokou Workers’ Club, a theatre/cinema built in the 1950s. Occasionally, we students came to see films here for a temporary break from busy school life.

During my five-year undergraduate period, I explored old Beijing by bicycle numerous times. Many places in Beijing were peaceful then. In famous Wangfujing, I saw the Capital Theatre, a Soviet-style theatre built in the 1950s. As a student, I could not afford to see performances by the famous People’s Art Theatre (the resident troupe theatre), however, and the theatre was far from the Tsinghua campus. In the southern part of the city, there is Dashanlan Commercial Street. Several ‘drama gardens’ from the Qing Dynasty remained but were sadly derelict. At the Summer Palace, I visited the Royal Deheyuan theatre building from the Qing Dynasty. These were my early impressions of Beijing’s theatres. Many state-owned enterprises and government departments had their own auditoriums, but I did not know this at the time.

In 1993, when I was a Master’s degree student, I participated in the renovation of Tianqiao Theatre. The renovation was led by Professor Li Daozeng, a famous scholar of theatre architecture. This theatre in southern Beijing, which was used for ballet performances, was built in the 1950s, when China and Beijing were undergoing rapid expansion and urban construction. Many skyscrapers were being built, and theatre construction proliferated. Outside East Third Ring Road is the Century Theatre, designed by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa ; it is among the most advanced in Beijing. As I explored the basement of the stage and the catwalks of theatre, I was amazed by its mechanical facilities. At the Poly Theatre of East Second Ring Road, the stage and mechanical facilities are even more perfect. These theatres represent a trend that reached a climax in the opening of the National Theatre in 2007.

Over the 30 years of theatre construction in Beijing, I have been fortunate to experience a number of important events. I was a member of the Tsinghua design team and collaborated with Paul Andreu of France. I witnessed the early scheme designed by Andreu and listened to his introduction in Paris. Seeing his giant egg near Tiananmen Square, I felt the drastic and unresolved conflicts between time and space, past and future and West and East. However, this is not the full story of Beijing. Today, privately run commercial theatres are emerging throughout Beijing’s hutongs, commercial complexes and old factories, satisfying the different demands of many audiences. This development of theatres is quietly changing the map of Beijing.


  1. Ai, W., Zhuang, D., & Liu, Y. (2008). The variation of urban land use in Beijing in the last one hundred years. Geo-information Science, 10, 489–494. 艾伟、庄大方、刘友兆 (2008). 北京市城市用地百年变迁分析. 地球信息科学 , 10, 489–494.Google Scholar
  2. Hou, R. (1988). Map collections of Beijing across the history. Beijing: Beijing Publishing Group. 侯仁之 (1988). 北京历史地图集. 北京: 北京出版社..Google Scholar
  3. Hou, X. (1999). The traditional theater of Beijing. Beijing: China City Press. 侯希三 (1999). 北京老戏园子. 北京: 中国城市出版社.Google Scholar
  4. Li, C. (1998). Theaters in Beijing since Qing Dynasty. Beijing: Beijing Yanshan Press. 李畅 (1998). 清代以来的北京剧场. 北京: 燕山出版社.Google Scholar
  5. Li, D. (2011). Selected works of Li Daozeng. Beijing: Tsinghua University Press. 李道增 (2011). 李道增选集. 北京: 清华大学出版社.Google Scholar
  6. Lian, X. (2015). Unit compound: On residential space in modern and contemporary Beijing (Master dissertation). Tsinghua University. 连晓刚 (2015). 单位大院: 近当代北京居住空间演变[硕士学位论文]. 北京: 清华大学建筑学院.Google Scholar
  7. Lu, X. (2009). The evolution of modern theater in China. Beijing: China Architecture & Building Press. 卢向东 (2009). 中国现代剧场的演进. 北京: 中国建筑工业出版社.Google Scholar
  8. Lv, X. (2006). Study on the space changes of theaters in Beijing (Master dissertation). Tsinghua University. 吕僖 (2006). 清末以来剧场在北京城市空间的变迁研究[硕士学位论文]. 北京: 清华大学建筑学院.Google Scholar
  9. Su, Z. (1964). Discussion of the reconstruction and planning of Tian’anmen Square (Master dissertation). Tsinghua University. 苏则民 (1964). 天安门广场改建和规划的经验探讨[硕士学位论文]. 北京: 清华大学建筑学院.Google Scholar
  10. Urban Planning Teaching and Research Division of School of Architecture. (1980). Thoughts on urban planning of Beijing. Architectural Journal, 5, 6–15. 清华大学建筑系城市规划教研室(1980). 对北京城市规划的几点设想. 建筑学报, 5, 6–15.Google Scholar
  11. Wang, D. (1959). The architecture of Beijing from 1949 to 1959. Architectural Journal, Z1, 13–17. 王栋岑(1959). 北京建筑十年. 建筑学报, Z1, 13–17.Google Scholar
  12. Xue, L. (2009). Chinese traditional theater buildings. Beijing: China Architecture & Building Press. 薛林平 (2009). 中国传统剧场建筑. 北京: 中国建筑工业出版社.Google Scholar
  13. Zhao, D. (1959a). Tian’anmen Square. Architectural Journal, Z1, 18–22. 赵冬日(1959). 天安门广场. 建筑学报, Z1, 18–22.Google Scholar
  14. Zhao, S. (1959b). Create architectures with Chinese socialism style. Architectural Journal, 7, 4–6. 赵深(1959). 创造中国的社会主义的建筑风格. 建筑学报, 7, 4–6.Google Scholar
  15. Zhao, D. (1989). The contemporary architecture of Beijing. Architectural Journal, 10, 2–6. 赵冬日(1989). 北京的当代建筑. 建筑学报, 10, 2–6.Google Scholar
  16. Zhou, Q. (2009). Survived through disputes—Project of the National Center for the Performing Arts. Architectural Journal, 1, 21–25. 周庆琳(2009). 在争论中生存——国家大剧院工程. 建筑学报, 1, 21–25.Google Scholar
  17. Zuo, C., Zheng, G., Zhao, B., & Hu, S. (1996). Collections of papers on Beijing City Planning. Beijing: China Architecture & Building Press. 左川、郑光中、赵炳时、胡绍学 (1996). 北京城市规划研究论文集. 北京: 中国建筑工业出版社.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of ArchitectureTsinghua UniversityBeijingChina

Personalised recommendations