Within the Acton Collection of Villa La Pietra,  there are numerous Chinese objects, some of which were collected by Harold Acton. In addition there are a group of over nine hundred photographs recording Harold Acton’s  life in China during the 1930s. He visited China at the beginning of the 1930s and lived in Beijing for seven years from 1932 until June 1939. Acton had a traditional Chinese courtyard residence, called Si He Yuan at Gongjian Hutong, within the aristocratic quarter  in Beijing. During these years, he was invited to teach English literature in the Peking National University, the oldest institution of its kind in China, founded in 1897, where he became acquainted with many important Chinese literary figures in the “New Poetry” movement. His love for Chinese culture and literature led him to translate many famous Chinese literary works into English, such as Modern Chinese Poetry (1936), Famous Chinese Plays (1937) and The Peach Blossom Fan (1976). In addition to Chinese literature, Harold was also interested in other forms of Chinese art and culture, such as the “Peking  Opera.” He studied Chinese painting with Aisin-Gioro Puru, one of the brothers of the last Chinese Emperor Pu Yi.

Through this photography exhibition, we get a glimpse of old Peking and Harold Acton’s experiences and acquaintances.

Curated by

Feiran Lyu, NYU student, Global Liberal Studies
Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager
Ellyn Toscano, Director, Villa La Pietra, New York University Florence


Stefano Pasolini (Photographs)
Claudia Beyer and Costanza Perrone Da Zara (Late Chinese Qing Dynasty Imperial Official Robe)


Scott Palmer, Coordinator of Instructional Technology and Digital Initiatives

The research project conducted by Feiran Lyu was made possible thanks to the support of Julie Mostov, Dean of Liberal Studies, New York University.

Special thanks to Alta Macadam for the editorial work and to Fall 2018 NYU students Ana Alvarez, Ariel Fishman, Michael Lee and Sofia Martinez for their contribution to the project.


Related Events

October 2 at 6:00 pm – Villa La Pietra
Harold in China: The Curation Process
Inauguration of the exhibition curated and presented by Feiran Lyu, NYU student, Global Liberal Studies, with Francesca Baldry, Collection Manager and Ellyn Toscano, Director, Villa La Pietra, New York University.

October 4 at 6:00 pm – Villa La Pietra
A Solitary Flower’: Bachelordom and Harold Acton’s China.
A Consideration of Harold Acton in China within a Framework of Queer Kinship and Cosmopolitanism. (Watch the full video of the talk on the event web page)
A talk by Kristin Mahoney, Michigan State University

December 1 at 11:00 am – on TV Chanel RAI 3

BellItalia – RAI 3 (National)
A documentary on the exhibition with an interview with Francesca Baldry, Acton Collection Manager, including a walk around the collection and garden.

February 4, 2019, all day symposium – Villa La Pietra
Harold Acton in China – A Dialogue Between East and West: Chinese Culture, Collecting, and Chinoiserie at Villa La Pietra
A program of scholarly talkes co-chaired by Professors Perry Klass and Larry Wolff, Co-Directors NYU Florence.


A message from Feiran Lyu

Curator Statement

Section I - Harold Acton’s Home: 2, Kung Hsien Hutong

“But behind the red doors were cool courtyards with trees and flowering shrubs and paper windowed pavilions, entirely shut off from the street by spirit screens, or sculptured walls to confuse unwelcome spirits and keep them out.”

-(Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p.277)

After living in a succession of temporary residences in Peking, in May 1936 Harold Acton purchased a Chinese mansion in a Hutong (alley) in the previous royal district, with the address 2, Kung Hsien Hutong (now called Gongjian Hutong), where he lived until he left China in 1939. The mansion had three successive courtyards. It was built during the Qing dynasty.

Map of Gong Jian Hutong today

The Gongjian Hutong(恭俭胡同) was initially built during the Ming Dynasty as the office area for the court eunuchs. In the Qing dynasty this area consisted of five Hutong (alley). After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, this Hutong was the place where most of the intellectuals, aristocrats and prominent figures in Peking society gathered. The prominent artist Qi Baishi, Prince P’u Ju, the cousin of the last Chinese Emperor and a friend of Harold Acton lived here too, as well as many famous Peking Opera actors.

A Si He Yuan (四合院) Mansion is characterized by its successive courtyards:

  1. Entrance Gate: The decoration of the gate usually reflected the social status of the owner of the residence.
  2. North-facing Room: Right next to the gate of the mansion this was the only room which faced north. It was usually used as an exterior living room, and also as an office, porter’s room, guestroom, and the servants’ quarter.
  3. Screen Wall: In a traditional Chinese mansion this prevented a direct view of the interior from outside.
  4. Drooping Flowers Gate: In the Chinese tradition, this was the only entrance gate to the main courtyard, it had decorative columns sculpted in the shape of flowers hanging from above instead of growing from the ground upwards, hence the name “Drooping flowers gate”.
  5. Short-cut Corridor: This corridor connected the “Drooping Flowers Gate”, the “Wing Rooms” and the principal room, for convenience on rainy and snowy days.
  6. East and West Wing Rooms: The two rooms situated on the east and west side of the main courtyard.
  7. Principal Room: The central building of the mansion which always faced South.
  8. Side Rooms: On both sides of the principal room, which was larger and longer.
  9. Long Room at the Back: Behind the Principal Room and Side Rooms facing South. It had one floor or at the most two floors. There was a courtyard behind. Usually the wives or elders of the owner of the mansion resided here.

Harold Acton’s Home 2, Kung Hsien Hutong

Section II - Harold Acton’s Life in Peking

“I was to lecture in a grim barrack-like structure of butcher-red brick ‘Western style’ erected in 1910 […]. Further west the original university, still referred to as Ma Shen Miao, or Temple of the god of Horses which had preceded it, had been converted in to dormitories and a large auditorium. It was not five minutes’ walk from my house, but my servants urged me to go there by rickshaw to create a ‘respectable impression’, since no Chinese would walk who could avoid it.”

-(Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p.331)

The 1930s is generally considered a ‘Golden Age’ in Chinese modern history. It was a period of rapid modernization, social and political change and educational reform. Hu Shi, philosopher, essayist and diplomat, was an advocate of Chinese liberalism and promoted language reform, and written vernacular Chinese. In 1929 he proposed “Wholesale Westernization”, an idea that was hotly debated in universities throughout the 1930s. The New Culture Movement promoted cultural and educational exchange between the West and China.

It was within this historical context that Harold Acton was invited by Wen Yuanning, the director of the School of Foreign Languages in Peking University (PKU), to teach English Literature. PKU is the oldest university in China. Harold Acton recounts his early time teaching in PKU: “I was to lecture in a grim barrack-like structure of butcher-red brick ‘Western style’ erected in 1910 […]. Further west the original university, still referred to as Ma Shen Miao, or Temple of the god of Horses which had preceded it, had been converted in to dormitories and a large auditorium. It was not five minutes’ walk from my house, but my servants urged me to go there by rickshaw to create a ‘respectable
impression’, since no Chinese would walk who could avoid it.” (Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p.331).

During Harold Acton’s time in PKU, he got to know Chen Shi-Hsiang (in Pinyin “Chen Shixiang” 陈世骧). Chen was Acton’s student who graduated from PKU in 1932 and became a teacher there. Later he went to the US and from 1945 taught at the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1936, Harold Acton and Chen Shixiang, published Modern Chinese Poetry, translations of the work of famous literary figures of the time.  This was the first English edition of Chinese modern poetry. The book has an introduction by Harold Acton.

Other literary acquaintances at this time were: Fei Ming (废名) and He Qifang (何其芳), both of whom were protagonists of the “New Poetry” movement.

Section III - The Peking Opera

“The Chinese Theater provided that ideal synthesis of the arts which I had always been seeking, a synthesis which only the Russian Ballet had approached in Europe. The harmonious combination of dialogue, singing, dancing and acrobatics. The beauty of costume, makeup, and movement, the subtlety of the pantomime, were thrilling even when one was ignorant of the plot and indifferent to the music. The technique of Chinese actors made scenery superfluous. Everything on the stage was simplified and intensified.”

-(Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p.355)

Harold Acton was an admirer of the Peking Opera and befriended some of its actors. He invited the company of Han Shih-Ch’ang (in Pinyin: Han Shichang 韩世昌) to his house. Many photos were taken of the actors in their different roles in the porch of Acton’s house in Peking between 1936 and 1939. The Acton Collection preserves an extensive group of photographs of actors from the Peking Opera, as well as theatre performances. Harold Acton contributed the article on The Peking Opera to The Oxford Companion to the Theatre (ed. Phyllis Hartnell, Oxford University Press, 1951)

Section IV: Architecture and Places in Peking visited by Harold Acton

“Kindness and courtesy was everywhere apparent; though it was a religious festival with a hot sun beating down continuously, all were tolerant, good-tempered and free from fanaticism: never before had I been impressed by the charm of masses.”

-(Memoirs of an Aesthete, 1948, p.281)

The photographs in this section are an illustration of the interest of Harold Acton for different places and architectures in Peking. The most represented are the photographs dedicated to the Bei Hai Park. The park, with many of Chinese imperial gardens, was built to imitate renowned scenic spots and architecture from various regions of China. First built in the 11th century, it is among the largest of all Chinese gardens and contains numerous historically important structures, palaces, and temples. Since 1925, the place has been open to the public as a park. It is also connected at its northern end to the Shichahai. There are also some images recounting his trips to the temples on the Miao Feng Mountain, and to the Ming Tombs.

Architecture and Places in Beijing visited by Harold Acton

Blue Chinese Summer Court Robe 石青真丝纱金龙夏吉服

Silk gauze embroidered with polychrome silk and couched, wrapped gold threads


Late Qing Dynasty Tongzhi – Guangxu period (1862-1908)

清同治 — 光绪年间 (1862-1908)

This is a semi-formal robe Jífú (吉服). The name for this type of robe is “Mangpao” (蟒袍), “pao” means robe and “mang”(蟒) means serpentine, it indicates here the embroidered dragon. This robe is specially worn for festivals, celebration of birthdays or other auspicious occasions. The color blue or indigo indicates that the robe originally could belong to an imperial official who is from the royal family or the imperial official who has the highest or second highest rank in the royal court. Usually they are only allowed to possess robes with four-claw dragons, because only the Emperor has the majesty to wear attires with five-claw dragons. However, if bestowed by and only by the Emperor the special permission, the official (on either of the statuses stated above) could wear an attire with five-claw dragons.


There are varied techniques applied on sewing different patterns on the robe. The technique for sewing the dragon is the most sophisticated. The body of the dragon is embroidered using the technique “diélínzhēn”(叠鳞针), which realistically imitates the dragon scales and creates the shiny and lively effect.


This robe most possibly belonged to Prince P’u Ru, who was one of the cousins of the last Emperor in China. He was also a teacher and friend of Harold Acton.


Blue Chinese Summer Court Robe


Harold Acton Timeline

Related Books Written or Translated by Harold Acton in the Acton Collection

A curated bibliography

Read more

TGR BELLITALIA - Dec. 1, 2019

Documentary on the exhibition broadcasted on the Italian national television RAI 3 network, "L'uomo della Pietra", beginning at 4.45 min.
(Note: Link temporarily unavailable)