A beginner's guide to European-inspired architecture in Beijing

Uncover Beijing's unexpected architectural gems

Image: courtesy of Arch

For visitors to the capital, it can seem like architecture in Beijing falls into two split camps: imperial architecture, such as the Forbidden City, and hyper-modern 'starchitect' buildings such as the CCTV building and Bird's Nest stadium. However, Beijing is also home to a number of European-inspired buildings, each with their own unique stories to tell. Read on for our pick of some of the best.


Can't get enough of European-inspired architecture in Beijing? Check out Château Laffitte, Rendinghu Park and Beijing Railway Museum. While they're all definitely worth a visit, just note that these places have undergone specific renovations to appear more 'European' (or in the case of Château Laffitte, a full-blown, painstaking replica) rather than being historic reflections of Europe's influence on Beijing at the time.


By MA Aldrich
Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)

Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)

Who built it? 

The 'Western Palaces' are a legacy of China's Jesuit tradition. The Qianlong Emperor commissioned Giuseppe Castiglione – a painter and architect who arrived in Beijing in 1715 and spent his life serving the Qing court – to design them in 1747.

Why it's important 
The final result was something of a reverse image of European chinoiserie, a fanciful interpretation of the palaces at Versailles with Chinese touches. But Castiglione was slammed by patriotic officials who despised such foreign outlandishness. Alas, this synthesis of East and West fell to the philistine destruction carried out by the Anglo-French armies that occupied Beijing in 1860, and today it lies in ruins.

Image: Yiyuan Xinju via Wikimedia Commons

St Joseph's Church (Dongtang)

St Joseph's Church (Dongtang)

Who built it?

In 1652, the Shun Zhi Emperor granted the Jesuits permission to build a church at one of Beijing's most prestigious addresses.

Why it's important 
A popular site for wedding photos, St Joseph's Church's Romanesque domes call to mind the arrival of the Jesuits as the first European residents in Beijing after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty. Despite repeated reconstructions because of earthquakes or civil unrest, a church has remained on that site ever since. The current structure was rebuilt in 1903, after the destruction of the Boxer Rebellion.

Image: Morio via Wikimedia Commons

Duan Qirui Former Government Building

Duan Qirui Former Government Building

Who built it? 

The premier of the Republic of China, Duan Qirui, ordered the construction of a complex for his government in the early 20th century. It stands today as an excellent example of classical Republican architecture. 

Why it's important 
Just as the appearance of President Duan's building reflected a veneer of Western architectural style, so too did his government adopt a thin varnish of 'constitutionalism'. He was called 'Mr Democracy' on account of his resistance to a Qing dynasty restoration, but the nickname soon became one of derision. In subsequent years, the site of Duan Qirui's government became the residence of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops until the Japanese chased them away. In 1945, the Nationalist army reclaimed this site until General Fu Zouyi surrendered the city to the People's Liberation Army. Declared a cultural relic in 1996, these days, it is used as a downtown campus for Renmin University and sits next to classy cocktail bar Arch

Image: courtesy of Arch

Beijing Hotel Nuo (formerly Raffles Hotel)

Beijing Hotel Nuo (formerly Raffles Hotel)

Who built it? 

Le Grand Hôtel de Pékin, to use its proper name, was built by two enterprising Frenchmen during the reconstruction of the city after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The site is currently occupied by Beijing Hotel NUO, the Chinese luxury hotel brand's second branch and not to be confused with Nuo Hotel Beijing in Lido.

Why it's important 
It's the city's oldest-surviving 'Western' hotel and its different sections show how it was expanded over the years; the imposing French-infused colonnade facade was constructed in the early 1900s, with later extensions added. In the 1910s, warlords would gather at the hotel and down tumblers of cherry brandy while making contacts with shadowy characters offering loans from financial syndicates. In the Roaring Twenties, the hotel hosted the likes of philosopher Bertrand Russell and writer George Bernard Shaw; in the '50s, it underwent another renovation and became the centre for socialist soirees for visitors Nikita Khrushchev, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, along with their hosts, Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou.

Image: courtesy of Beijing Hotel Nuo

Former American Legation compound

Former American Legation compound

Who built it?

In the Qing dynasty, this district was set aside by the Board of Rites for hostels where tribute missions from border countries would stay before their imperial audience. So, naturally, when the British and French came demanding a diplomatic presence within the city walls, the Qing court served up a part of town already suited to the barbarians.

Why it's important 
At the western end of Dongjiaominxiang (or Legation Street), the Americans established their legation in the 1860s. The site was seriously damaged during the Boxer Rebellion and soon a new building arose, supposedly constructed on the basis of a blueprint for a post office in Washington DC. Perhaps that urban legend is not true, but the building nevertheless bears an uncanny similarity to governmental agencies built in the US city in the first half of the 20th century. Now, the old legation hosts jazz bar Blue Note, among others, in the 'lifestyle development project' called Ch’ien Men 23 – for a new set of barbarians.

The former American Legation compound lit up. Image: courtesy of Blue Note Beijing

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