Summer retreats: Fengtai, Kuling and Beidaihe

Fengtai, in the Western Hills, Hubei province

The legation used to leave Peking for cooler weather during the summer months. In the nineteenth century, the most common destination was in the Western Hills around the village of Fengtai, about fifteen miles south-west of Peking. The legation would lease one of the many Buddhist temples for its sojourn: they were, in practice, walled compounds containing buildings for rent to foreigners, besides the monks’ shrines and dwellings. Since the 1860s, the British minister had taken a temple large enough to house his family, temporary office, several student interpreters and other agreeable and impecunious junior staff. Other senior members of the legation took temples of their own nearby.

By the 1890s, other legations in Peking had established permanent retreats in the Western Hills and the British minister began arguing the case to London for similar provision. In this pursuit, Sir Claude MacDonald was eventually successful. A site of about 30 acres, 7½ of them enclosed by a wall, was bought in 1897 for £381 about twelve miles from Peking on a bleak site about 200 ft. above the plain. The Shanghai office of the Office of Works built four different bungalows here for the minister, three senior secretaries, a secretary’s mess and chancery, and students’ quarters, complete with stabling for twelve horses. The buildings were completed in spring 1900 and Lady MacDonald and family, somewhat ill-advisedly in the light of increasing Boxer unrest, arrived for their first stay in the new bungalows on 3 June. On the following day, the minister sent an armed escort to bring his family back to Peking. The Boxers burned down all of the bungalows the following week. The site was never re-occupied and was sold in 1923 to the Church of England Mission for the equivalent of its original cost.

Students' quarters, 1897.

Students’ quarters, 1897.

Kuling/Lushan, Jiangxi province

Kuling is a play on the word “cooling” by the Rev. Edward Little, a British missionary, who was promoting a refreshing hill resort that he had founded in the 1890s for weary missionaries working in central China. It was in the Lushan mountains, 15 miles south of Kiukiang on the Yangtze. By the turn of the century, missionaries had built about 120 houses and a church there. The Rev. Little in 1897 offered a ¾ acre site, free of charge, to the Kiukiang consul if the British government would like to build on it a retreat for the Yangtze consuls. Boyce, after visiting Kiukiang on his 1899 tour of China consulates, gave succour to this idea, even though the Treasury had declined it unless the retreat could be self-supporting, which was doubtful. Nevertheless, in consequence of Boyce’s visit, the Kuling trustees transferred Lot No 75 to the Commissioners of Works in August 1899 for 995 years at an annual rent of 1,000 copper cash. After the loss of Fengtai at the hands of the Boxers the following year, there was no enthusiasm for building at Kuling and the site lay fallow until the lease was surrendered in 1933.

Beidaihe (Peitaiho), Hebei province

The next attempt to build permanent summer quarters for the Peking legation began in 1905. Peitaiho, a burgeoning seaside resort about two hundred miles east of Peking that had become accessible by rail, was overtaking the Western Hills as the legations’ preferred summer retreat. Although all the foreign-owned houses in Peitaiho were destroyed in the Boxer uprising, by 1905 about 150 new ones had been built and were occupied each summer by merchants and missionaries. The Office of Works architect, William Cowan, was sent from Shanghai to look for a suitable site in 1905 on which to build what was then called a sanatorium for the British legation in the form of two bungalows, one each for married and unmarried staff. (Sir Claude MacDonald’s successor as minister, the cultivated (and unaccompanied) Sir Ernest Satow, was not interested in provision being made for a minister.) Cowan selected two adjacent sites, belonging (as it happened) to Sir Claude MacDonald and a Mr Lees, that sloped down to the sea and together comprised about three acres. The Treasury agreed to their purchase but local complications delayed their acquisition until 1908, by which time the Treasury had put a limit on the cost of the scheme which meant that only one of the bungalows was built in the first instance. Satow’s successor as minister in 1906, Sir John Jordan, decided that he and his successors should have a bungalow after all, with the result that more land needed to be acquired. Fortunately, three adjacent plots, together comprising almost five acres, proved purchasable in the course of 1909 and four buildings were completed on them at a cost of about £8,250 in 1910. The site was superb and ran down to the beach but the buildings at first looked very raw: long and low rectangular timber bungalows, with pitched roofs and verandas on all four sides, well set apart from each other. They served their purpose well until 1937 when most of the embassy followed the Nationalist government, driven out of Peking by the Japanese, to Nanking.

After the Second World War, the Beihaide  properties (their address having become 95-98 Chung Shan Lu) were first let rent-free to the US Marine Corps for as long as it took the Corps to find that there was no running water. The Royal Navy was then authorised to use them, and a report by the commanding officer of HMS Contest on 29 August 1946 conveyed some of the flavour of the exercise:

[Four sailors] were sent by rail from CHINGWANTAO to PEITAIHO on 15th August to sight the Legation Compound, as it was desired to find altemative accomodation for the Ship’s Company while painting out Messdecks on board. … At 1515 that afternoon the White Ensign was broken at the Legation Flagstaff, this being the first British Flag to fly there since September, 1941, when the Consular Flag was hauled down by Mr A.G.N. Ogden, the then Consul-General, Tientsin. … Further parties followed and eighty was the greatest number accommodated there at one moment. A change-over took place on the 20th and a total of one hundred and sixty sailors spent three days each at PEITAIHO, while the ship remained at CHINGWANTAO. … [Cooking] was the greatest problem to contend with. … The nearest approach to a Kitchen was a small room containing a range built of brick and fitted with a large iron bowl on top. It was decided that if the bowl were removed and a flat sheet of Iron substituted in its place, some sort of range could be contrived. This was done and a Damage Control Plate from the Ship assumed this important role. … Peitaiho has little to offer besides its natural beauty and outstanding beach. … There is also a very good Enlisted Men’s Club, which was made available for our use, and there are a few Russian cabarets in the town. …

By the early 1950s, Peitaiho was isolated by the Communists. A few members of the British mission stayed in the still-serviceable bungalows during the 1950s, and two caretakers were employed. In June 1959, contemporaneously with the British mission in Peking being levered out of the Duke of Liang compound, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the local authorities were taking over the summer legation buildings for their own construction purposes. The British government was powerless to object and later agreed, in a comprehensive settlement of former property claims,  to accept compensation of some 20% of the estimated value of the property.

Bungalow 4.

Bungalow 4.


Minister's bungalow, 1897.

Minister’s bungalow, Western Hills,1897.

Bungalow for Secretary, Chinese secretary and doctor, 1897.

Bungalow for Secretary, Chinese secretary and doctor, Western Hills, 1897.

Chancery mess, 1897.

Chancery mess, Western Hills, 1897.


First land purchase. Only the northern pair of bungalows was built, 1907.

First land purchase. Only the northern pair of bungalows was built, 1907.

Second land purchase, 1907, from three neighbours.

Second land purchase, 1909, from three neighbours.

Bungalows as built: minister's at south, nos. 1 & 2 at west, no. 3 at east, and no. 4 at north.

Bungalows as built, 1910. Minister’s at south, nos. 1 & 2 at west, no. 3 at east, and no. 4 at north.

Minister's bungalow.

Minister’s bungalow.

Bungalows 1 and 2.

Bungalows 1 and 2.

Bungalow 3.

Bungalow 3.