The Imperial Archive (huangshicheng 皇史宬), also called Zhangbiaoku 表章庫 "Archive of official documents", was one of the locations were central documents of the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) dynasties were preserved. The building is the best-preserved one among all ancient archives.
Today it is located at Nanchizi Avenue 南池子大街 in Beijing, slightly southeast of the Imperial Palace. It was constructed in 1534 and was intended to house portraits of emperors and princes, veritable records (shilu 實錄) and "precious instructions" (baoxun 寶訓) by the emperor. The planned name was Shenyuge 神御閣 "Tower of the Divine Emperors", but before the building was finished, the emperor decided to name it huangshicheng, and it was decided to store portraits in a separate archive in the Jingshen Hall 景神殿.
The whole area of the archive is 8,460 square metres large. The main building (zhengdian 正殿) is constructed with bricks, without a single beam of timber, in order to prevent fire. The building is covered by a typical "hip roof" (wudian 廡殿), yet in the inner hall has the appearance of a tunnel vault. The building has a surface of 360 square metres. It is erected on a two-metres high platform, to save documents from moisture. The walls have a considerable thickness: 6.14 m for the northern and southern walls, and 3.5 for the eastern and western walls. The building can be accessed by five doors from the south, and there are no other perforations of this shell, apart from two small holes for the exchange of air. This particular construction helps to keep stable temperature and humidity, and is ideal for the preservation of paper documents.
Inside the building, documents are enclosed in 152 cabinets (with a size of 1.31 × 1.34 × 0.71 m) of carved, gold-lacquered wood decorated with dragons and clouds. Inside, the chests are lined with leather and metal, which helps to prevent the damaging or destruction of the documents by fire and water. The cabinets stand 1.42-m high, on stone platforms. The whole arrangement, following ancient custom, is known as shishi jinkui 石室金匱 "golden coffers in a stone hall" (a term first mentioned in the history book Shiji 史記, in a paragraph on the imperial archive of that time).
On the eastern and western side of the main hall, wings with five rooms are attached, constructed of bricks and timber. North of the Eastern Wing (dongpeidian 東配殿) is a pavillion with a stone slab (zuobeiting 座碑亭, called Yubeiting 御碑亭 "Pavillion of the Imperial Slab"). It was erected in 1807, when the whole complex was renovated. The entrance gate is known as Huangshicheng Gate 皇史宬門.
Apart from veritable records and sacred instructions (shengxun 聖訓), the Archive kept the imperial genealogies (yudie 玉牒), a copy of the Ming-period encyclopaedia Yongle dadian 永樂大典, the statecraft encyclopaedia Da-Qing huidian 大清會典, copies (fuben 副本) of routine memorials (tiben 題本), the military annals of the wars against the Dzunghars (Shuomo fanglüe 朔漠方略) and seals (yinxin 印信) for the generals.
The Qing moved the Ming period documents to the archive of the Grand Secretariat (neige shuji ku 內閣書籍庫) to have room for their own documents. The documents of the ten reigns of the Qing dynasty made out a library of 2,630 boxes (han 函) or 13,142 scrolls (juan 卷). In 1807, the imperial genealogies of the Qing were moved to the Shouhuang Hall 壽皇殿 of Jingshan Park 景山. In 1933 the surviving documents once stored in the Imperial Archive were brought to Nanjing, and part of them was shipped to Taiwan in 1949.
The "sacred instructions" and imperial genealogies of the Qing were treated with sophisticated ceremonial, and any movement of these documents was recorded painstakingly.
During the Ming period, the Archive was administrated by the Directorate of Ceremonial (silijian 司禮監), during the Qing by the Manchu documents sections (Manbenfang 滿本房) of the Grand Secretariat. The building was protected by a handful of guards (shouwei 守尉), and the documents were kept in order by 16 clerks (shouli 守吏).
In 1900, when the armies of eight foreign allies (baguo lianjun 八國聯軍) conquered Beijing, they plundered and damaged the archive. The Republican government later did ist best to restore the original situation. In 1982 the building became a national unit of cultural relics deserving protection (quanguo zhongdian wenwu baohu danwei 全國重點文物保護單位). Today is stands under the direction of the First Historical Archive (Zhongguo diyi lishi dang'anguan 中國第一歷史檔案館).