Although the buildings of this park are now in ruins, the history is exceptional. Each time I visit this park, I want to learn more about the various structures of the park, their origin and the history behind the sad destruction of the numerous buildings and gardens. Of all the parks in Beijing, this park, more than all others, has gained my curiosity about the original appearance of the palace grounds since little remains of the original structures and gardens. I also have tried to discover as much as possible about the present day location of any artifacts from Yuanmingyuan.
The Creation of Yuanmingyuan
Yunamingyuan was built in the 18th and early 19th century and it was originally located 5 miles from the old outer walls of the city. Initial construction began in 1707, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi when the emperor came upon this spot on one of his frequent hunting expeditions outside of the city walls. He stopped in this area to rest and, as he reported in early records of the garden, he tasted the delicious spring water, admired the scenery and was refreshed by the gentle breeze. Originally called the'’Gardens of Perfect Brightness' these 'Imperial Gardens' were built by this emperor with the original intent for them to be a gift for his fourth son, who later became Emperor Yongzheng. Emperor Kangxi was responsible for naming the complex as Yuanmingyuan. He instructed that the three characters of 'Yuanmingyuan' be written in Chinese calligraphy and carved over the Great Gate of the Palace and from this time it became known as Yuanmingyuan. The Chinese character, 'Yuan', meant that the gardens represented a perfection of human morality above that of commoners and the character, 'Ming', was used to suggest the perfection of political achievement. The name, therefore, represented the ideal standard of a respected emperor.
In 1725, under Emperor Yongzheng, the gardens were greatly expanded when the emperor introduced many waterworks to the gardens by creating many lakes, streams and ponds which greatly complemented the rolling hills and lower areas of the grounds. Yongzheng also named 28 scenic spots within the garden. A great earthquake took place in Beijing in the reign of Yongzheng. Tremmors continued for many days, September 20th to October 6th, 1730, greatly frightening those living in the area. Following the earthquake, the slight damage to garden structures in the park was repaired.
In Emperor Qianlong's reign, further expansion of the park was undertaken. Qianlong increased the number of scenic spots in the park to 50 and he took a personal interest in every part of the expansion, composing a poem for each of the gardens. His poetic nature is shown as he mused about his gardens with such words as: "In the clear air after rain the aspect of the mountains has crystallized the blue-black ...The wind blows on the water and turns it to wrinkled silk."
By the middle of the 19th century, the wondrous gardens had undergone expansion in one form or another for over 150 years.Yuanmingyuan, by this time, contained copies of some of the typical famous gardens from the regions of the Southern Yangtze River such as ten scenes copied from the west lake of Hangzhou. The emperor sat beside 'Venice-styled' bodies of water and pondered a city far away. Some of the other scenes in the garden were imitations of famous resorts in China and others were designed to resemble the fairyland-like scenery described in well-known ancient Chinese poems or stories. One of the scenes, for example, was based on 'Peach Blossom Spring' from a story by Tao Yuan-Ming.
Yuanmingyuan now contained enormous treasures such as: scriptures, calligraphy works, paintings, jewelry, vases and wares of gold and silver. The entire complex had become a showcase of the essence of Chinese ancient culture. Rare trees and plants were profusely planted throughout the park. Although locals were not permitted to visit the gardens, dignitaries and delegations who did visit the grounds called it 'the King of All the Gardens in the World'.
In addition to the Chinese buildings and gardens, Emperor Qianlong commissioned the Jesuit priest and architect Guiseppe Castiglione and the French priest-scientist, Benoist to design 'western mansions' for the north-east part of the park between 1747 and 1759. These foreign palaces housed Qianlong's collection of European curiosities, most of which were rare and valuable. Their contents are described by Father Bourgeois, writing from Beijing in 1786: "The European palaces contain only European ornaments and furniture. It is unbelievable how rich this sovereign is in curiosities and magnificent objects of all kinds from the Occident. You ask me if the Emperor has any Venetian or French glass. Thirty years ago he already had so many pieces that, not knowing where to put them, he had a quantity of the first grade broken up to make window panes for his European buildings."
A particular feature of the park grounds and the historical story behind it has been my particular interest in the park. On my visits to the park, I have wanted to identify the exact location where the wonderous bronze animal clock was installed in the time of Emperor Qianlong. At the time of this empror’s European additions to the park, Father Benoit was able to make a model of a fountain which delighted Emperor Qianlong so much that he had a clock-fountain manufactured and installed outside the main European building and this area became known as Haiyantang. This marvelous fountain included bronze heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Water gushed from the mouth of one of the animals every two hours (in ancient China, a day was divided into twelve parts instead of twenty-four hours), and at twelve noon, the animals would spew out water simultaneously. In the European section of the park, guided by pictures of early days, I was able to see where this fountain had probably been located.
At this same time when this clock was installed, there was also an ingeniously designed 'Ten-Thousand-Flower Maze' created after the style of garden labyrinths which were then popular in Europe. The emperor would ask his eunuchs and younger members of the court to play hide-and-seek in the maze and watch them from a higher place for amusement.
The western parts of the gardens which contained the European buildings covered only one-fiftieth of the total area of the gardens and more than 95% of the total Imperial Gardens were made up of essentially Chinese-style buildings. There were also a few buildings in Tibetan and Mongol styles, reflecting the diversity of the Qing Empire.
The southern area of the palace grounds was used for official government affairs since the Forbidden City, at this time, was used only for formal ceremonies. The emperor, the Imperial court and family members lived at Yuanmingyuan for the most part of the year and the emperor completed most affairs of state from this location.
Of course, few visitors were ever allowed within the grounds of Yuanmingyuan and similar to the Forbidden City area, commoners would never be allowed to enter the area. A visit to the palace grounds would be very rare invitation which was given to dignitaries to complete state affairs or to a foreign delegation.
A visit of Dutch dignitaries would turn out to be the last occasion when any European appeared before the Chinese Court within the context of traditional Chinese imperial foreign relations. Representing the Dutch court and the Dutch East India Company interests, Isaac Titsingh traveled to Beijing in 1794-95 for celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Qianlong Emperor's reign. Accounts published by members of this entourage contained raving compliments of the gardens and buildings which they had seen. The members of this mission were the last European diplomats to enjoy the mid-winter splendor of the vast Summer Palace before its destruction.
The Destruction of Yuanmingyuan
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French forces marched inland from the coast to reach Beijing. On the evening of October 6, 1860, French units left main attack force and entered the grounds of the Old Summer Palace. Although the French commander, Montauban, assured the British commander, Grant, that "nothing had been touched", extensive looting took place by these soldiers. Later, on October 18, 1860, the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin ordered a total destruction of Yuanmingyuan. Elgin's command was in retaliation for the fact that although many British soldiers had presented a flag of truce, many had been captured, mistreated and died after horrible suffering. As a result of Elgin's orders, over three thousand British troops looted the buildings of nearly all the treasures and set the entire place ablaze in a fire which lasted for three days and nights. In some unverified accounts of the burning of the grounds it is recorded that 300 eunuchs and maids burned alive in a room where the portraits of the former emperors were stored. After witnessing this destruction of Yuanamingyuan, Chinese court official, Wen Feng, who was responsible for guarding the complex, committed suicide by jumping into the garden's 'Good Fortune Sea'. The emperor and court members escaped the burning and plundering by fleeing to the Forbidden City.
This destruction and looting of Yuanmingyuan was noted by Victor Hugo, the famous French author, when he wrote in 1861: "One day, two robbers rushed into the palace. One was busy in robbing, and the other taking pleasure in setting fire. Then they returned cheerfully to Europe. They are respectively called France and Britain. They 'shared' the Old Summer Palace, the oriental treasure house, and chuckled to themselves with the view that they have achieved a great victory!"
Due to the scattered scenic spots and the vast water areas, some of the buildings were not completely razed to the ground in these European invasions of 1860. During the reign of Emperor Tongzhi (1873) there were approximately 13 buildings remaining in the palace. However, another disaster followed later, when in 1900, the Old Summer Palace suffered another burning during the reign of Emperor Guangxu. At that time, the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing and burned and plundered the remaining 13 buildings. Charles Gordon, a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers, at that time, wrote: "We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property... You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully."
Following this cultural catastrophe, the Imperial court relocated permanently to the old and austere Forbidden City, where it stayed until 1924, when the Last Emperor was expelled by a republican army.
These events have been made into film a number of times in China. One famous movie is known as the 'Burning of the Imperial Palace'. A Chinese movie of 2006, titled 'Yuanmingyuan', recreates the garden in all its glory. In addition to movies, the destruction of the area has been the subject of several books. Among several, a novel by George Fraser, published in 1985, titled 'Flashman and the Dragon', includes a description of the destruction of the Summer Palace from a European viewpoint.
It is thought that most, but not all, of the treasures of the Summer Place were looted during the several acts of plundering by these foreign troops but aaccording to Prof. Wang Dou Cheng, of the People's University in Beijing, not all of the treasurers perished in the burnings. He suggests that the ruins were further scavenged by Chinese treasure hunters after the initial damage and also during the Cultural Revolution. Following the time of the European plunders, eeunuchs, bandits and dishonest Chinese traders chopped down tens of thousands of precious trees in the garden and sold them for profit. Chinese warlords also stole stone materials to build their own gardens. It has been recorded that one warlord took years to transport, with dozens of carts and wagons a day, the stone materials and bricks he obtained from Yuanmingyuan to his own estate. With the wars, fires, and the numerous occasions of looting, a once prosperous garden was eventually turned into a wilderness.
Many believe that some of the looted treasures from Yuanmingyuan are stored at the British Museum and Louvre Museum. The Chinese people and many International supporters are of the opinion that all these treasures should be returned to China and are of the same belief as well-known, cultural ambassador, Jackie Chan, who has stated that: "This behavior is shameful ... .It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today". A sticking point in demanding the return of looted artifacts, from Yunmingyuan to China, are the policies of the United Nations regarding national treasures. The United Nations has passed strict policies regarding cultural artifacts, however, only a few statuettes from 'The Eternal Spring Garden' of the Yongzheng Emperor have actually been returned to China; these are displayed in the Beijing National Museum. Now, some of the missing curiosities are displayed in the other countries' museums, including the British Museum; Bibliotheque Nationale de France; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA; the Oslo Museum of Applied Art and several others. A delegation from China is, at present, traveling to various locations of the world in a quest to discover any artifacts from Yuanmingyuan which have been taken out of China and to promote the return of these treasures to China.
In 1744, when Emperor Qianlong's building projects in Yuanmingyuan were almost complete, two court artists, Tang Tai and Shen Yuan, painted for the Emperor a remarkable set of forty views of this palace, which have been in the Biblioteque Nationale in France since 1862. These pictures are the main resource for reference for those who wish to discover the original appearance of Yuanmingyuan.
Recently Yuanmingyuan Park has been the centre of environmental controversies such as those regarding new renovations to raise the water levels. Restoration plans for the park buildings have been discussed and discarded since most agree that a representation of the former marvel would not honor the original park nor present the true historical essence of Yuanmingyuan. Some restoration has taken place in parts of the park such as with the outer gates. Since the European sections of the park were the parts which were not completely damaged by the fires and looting, a few ruined stones and building remnants remain and this serves as the main attraction for tourists. This has misled many visitors to believe wrongly that the Old Summer Palace was made up only of European-style buildings.
The park is now a place for long, pleasant walks by Beijingers and visiting tourists. Only broken columns and marble chunks remain of the palace's wonderful structures. I love to walk around the grounds to see the beautiful lakes in summer when people ride on boats and ducks swim around the shores. In fall and winter the ruins themselves are majestic in their various shades of grey and white and the area is one which is symbolic of places where we wish that "walls could talk".
My Search for the Bronze Zodiac Figures of the Yuanmingyuan Fountain
My particular interest in Yuanmingyuan on each of my visits has been to visualize the specific location of 'Haiyantang', the largest of the foreign installations at Yuanmingyuan. This area contained the pumps which Father Benoit devised for raising the water and the main reservoir for the fountains. The most interesting in the group of fountains of the European group was the one at the west front of the main building. Here there were two broad staircases, one swinging to the right and one to the left which met before the main entrance on the level of the second floor. The balustrades of both staircases were formed of large blocks of carved marble and from this sprang small fountains. The water from these formed little springs which fell into the three stone basis below. On both sides of the central pool was arranged a remarkable water-clock. The two-hour periods by which the Chinese, at the time, divided the day, were represented by twelve seated figures of the zodiac animals. Each of the animals would spout water at a time interval. The hydraulic machinery which moved the clock became broken after the death of Father Benoit. No one could repair it and the water had to be raised more clumsily by buckets and ropes and eventually the clock fell into disrepair.
The animal figurehead sculptures of this remarkable fountain were looted from the Old Summer Palace in the raids by the English and French forces and all twelve bronze heads disappeared from China. Some have been retrieved. In 2000, the monkey, tiger and ox heads were purchased from a Hong Kong auction by a state-owned conglomerate, The Poly Group, which paid over HK $30 million to purchase the three bronze heads. Following this purchase, a Macau billionaire, Stanley Ho, bought the pig and horse heads and donated them to the Poly Museum in Beijing where they joined the three previous acquisitions. As a Chinese patriot, Ho stated: "With this move, I hope to encourage more people to take part in preserving Chinese artifacts and to promote patriotism and nationalism." The rabbit and rat which were part of French fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent's collection housed in France, were sold to an anonymous bidder by auction house, Christie's, on February 25th 2009, however, on March 2nd, a Chinese collector, Cai Mingchao, who identified himself as the bidder, claimed that he would not pay the money. The bronze heads involved in the controversy remain to this date in France. Yves Saint Laurent's partner, Pierre Berge, has stated he would keep the items if Mr Cai did not pay up: "I'll keep them at my place," he told French media, "We will continue to live together in my home."
I look forward to the day when all 12 of the zodiac animals can be reunited.