Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China | CruiseBe
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Old Summer Palace

History and museums, Natural sights
palace, gardens, walking, sightseeing

The Old Summer Palace (圆明园; 圓明園; Yuánmíng Yuán), known in Chinese as Yuanming Yuan ("Gardens of Perfect Brightness"), and originally called the Imperial Gardens (御园; 御園; Yù Yuán), was a complex of palaces and gardens in present-day Haidian District, Beijing, China. It is located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) northwest of the walls of the former Imperial City section of Beijing. Constructed in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Old Summer Palace where the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty and his successors resided and handled state affairs; the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies. The Old Summer Palace was known for its extensive collection of garden and building architecture and other works of art. It was also called the "Garden of Gardens" (万园之园; 萬園之園; wàn yuán zhī yuán) in its heyday.

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, as the Anglo-French expedition force relentlessly approached Beijing, two British envoys, a journalist for The Times and a small escort of British and Indian troopers were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. Meanwhile, the French and British troops reached the palace and conducted extensive looting and destruction. Later on, as news emerged that the delegation sent for negotiation was imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths, the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace, which was then carried out by British and French troops.



The Imperial Gardens at the Old Summer Palace were made up of three gardens:

  1. Garden of Perfect Brightness proper (圆明园; 圓明園; Yuánmíng Yuán)
  2. Garden of Eternal Spring (长春园; 長春園; Chángchūn Yuán)
  3. Elegant Spring Garden (绮春园; 綺春園; Qǐchūn Yuán)

Together, they covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres), almost five times the size of the Forbidden City grounds and eight times the size of the Vatican City. Hundreds of structures, such as halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes and bridges, stood on the grounds.

In addition, hundreds of examples of Chinese artwork and antiquities were stored in the halls, along with unique copies of literary works and compilations. Several famous landscapes of southern China had been reproduced in the Imperial Gardens.

Western Mansions

The most visible architectural remains of the Old Summer Palace can be found in the Western mansions (Xiyang Lou) section of 18th century European-style palaces, fountains and waterworks, and formal gardens. The designers of these structures built of stone were the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were employed by the Qianlong Emperor to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects. However, the European-style buildings only occupied an area along the back of the Garden of Eternal Spring that was small compared to the overall area of the gardens. More than 95% of the Imperial Gardens were made up of Chinese-style buildings. There were also a few buildings in Tibetan and Mongol styles, reflecting the diversity of the Qing Empires


Initial construction of the Old Summer Palace began in 1707 during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. It was intended as a gift for the emperor's fourth son, Prince Yong (the future Yongzheng Emperor), who would greatly expand the Imperial Gardens in 1725. The Yongzheng Emperor also introduced the waterworks of the gardens, creating lakes, streams and ponds to complement the rolling hills and grounds, and named 28 scenic spots within the garden. The Yongzheng Emperor also constructed a number of “living tableaux” he and his family could observe and interact with. One such scene was called “Crops as Plentiful as Fields” which involved court eunuchs pretending to be rural farmers on an island. Another was called the “Courtyard of Universal Happiness” which was a mock village where the imperial family could interact with shopkeepers, again eunuchs in disguise.

During the Qianlong Emperor's reign, the second expansion was well underway and the number of scenic spots increased to 50 (the emperor personally directed the construction process). The splendors of the palace and the grounds were depicted in the Forty Views of the Yuanmingyuan, an album produced in 1744 by the Qianlong Emperor's court painters.

The last European appearance in the Old Summer Palace in the context of traditional Chinese imperial foreign relations, was a diplomatic mission in 1795 representing the interests of the Dutch and Dutch East India Company. The Titsingh delegation included Isaac Titsingh, the Dutch-American Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, and the Frenchman Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes. Both published complementary accounts of the mission. Titsingh died before he could publish his version of the events.


In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces, having marched inland from the coast at Tianjin (Tientsin), arrived in Beijing (Peking).

In mid-September, two envoys, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes went ahead of the main force under a flag of truce to negotiate with Prince Yi and representatives of the Qing Empire at Tongzhou (Tungchow). After a day of talks, they and their small escort of British and Indian troopers (including two British envoys and Thomas William Bowlby, a journalist for The Times) were taken prisoner by the Qing general Sengge Rinchen. They were taken to the Ministry of Justice (or Board of Punishments) in Beijing, where they were confined and tortured. Parkes and Loch were returned after two weeks, with 14 other survivors. 20 British, French and Indian captives died. Their bodies were barely recognizable.

On the night of 6 October, French units diverted from the main attack force towards the Old Summer Palace. At the time, the palace was occupied by only some eunuchs and palace maids; the Xianfeng Emperor and his entourage had already fled to the Chengde Mountain Resort in Hebei. Although the French commander Charles Cousin-Montauban assured his British counterpart, James Hope Grant, that "nothing had been touched", there was extensive looting by French and British soldiers. There was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Qing soldiers were in the vicinity.

On October 18, Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, retaliated against the torture and executions by ordering the destruction of the Old Summer Palace. Destroying the Old Summer Palace was also thought to be a way of discouraging the Qing Empire from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool. Also, with the extent of looting and pillage of the palace that its complete destruction was the way to mask such barbarous act of the allied army. It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, and the massive fire lasted for three days. Unknown to the troops, some 300 remaining eunuchs and palace maids, who concealed themselves from the intruders in locked rooms, perished with the burnt palace buildings. Only 13 buildings survived intact, most of them in the remote areas or by the lakeside. The palace was again sacked and completely destroyed in 1900 when the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing. Charles George Gordon, who was then a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers and part of the 1860 Anglo-French expeditionary force, wrote about his experience:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which could not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money...I have done well. The local people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. 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. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

British and French looters preferred porcelain (much of which still graces English and French country houses) while neglecting bronze vessels prized locally for cooking and burial in tombs. Many such treasures dated back to the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old. A specific exception was the looting of the Haiyantang Zodiac fountain with its twelve bronze animal heads. Some of the most notable treasures ended up at the Chinese Museum in the Palace of Fontainebleau, which Empress Eugénie specifically set up in 1867 to house these newly acquired collections.

Once the Old Summer Palace had been reduced to ruins, a sign was raised with an inscription in Chinese stating, "This is the reward for perfidy and cruelty". The burning of the palace was the last act of the war.

According to Professor Wang Daocheng of the Renmin University of China, not all of the palace was destroyed in the original burning. Instead, some historical records indicate that 16 of the important garden sceneries survived the destruction in 1860. Wang identifies the Republican era and the Cultural Revolution as two significant periods that contributed further to the destruction of the Old Summer Palace.

Like the Forbidden City, no commoner had ever been allowed into the Old Summer Palace, as it was used exclusively by the imperial family of the Qing Empire. The burning of the Old Summer Palace is still a very sensitive issue in China today. The destruction of the palace has been perceived as barbaric and criminal by many Chinese, as well as by external observers. In his "Expédition de Chine", Victor Hugo described the looting as, "Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain." In his letter, Hugo hoped that one day France would feel guilty and return what it had plundered from China.

Mauricio Percara, journalist and Argentine writer who works at China Radio International, talks about the apology through the literature by Victor Hugo and mentioned in his story entitled redemption the bust of the French writer located in the old Summer Palace: "at the site where their French peers ever posed his destructive feet today a radiant bust of the great Victor Hugo rises. From the old Summer Palace, the gardens of perfect brightness, a righteous French poses her look of stone in the snow falling obediently on the worn floor of the capital of the North."


Following the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, the Qing imperial court relocated to the Forbidden City.

In 1873, the teenage Tongzhi Emperor attempted to rebuild the Old Summer Palace, on the pretext of turning it into a place of retirement for his two former regents, the empress dowagers Ci'an and Cixi. However, the imperial court lacked the financial resources to rebuild the palace, and at the urging of the court, the emperor finally agreed to stop the project in 1874. During the 1880s, an adjacent imperial gardens, the Gardens of Clear Ripples (the present-day Summer Palace) was restored for the use of Empress Dowager Cixi as a new summer resort, albeit on a smaller scale.

In the present day, the ruins of the European-style palaces are the most prominent building remnants on the site. This has misled some visitors to believe wrongly that the Old Summer Palace was made up only of European-style buildings.

A few Chinese-style buildings in the outlying Elegant Spring Garden also survived the fire. Some of these buildings were restored by the Tongzhi Emperor before the project was abandoned. In 1900, many of the buildings that had survived or had been restored were burnt for good by the forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance.

Most of the site was left abandoned and used by local farmers as agricultural land. Only in the 1980s was the site reclaimed by the government and turned into a historical site. The Yuanmingyuan Artists Colony became famous for germinating a new wave of painters such as Fang Lijun and musicians such as Fa Zi on the site before it was shut down by the government and many artists relocated to the Songzhuang area outside of Beijing. Debates in the 1990s arose regarding restoration and development issues and a more recent environmental controversy brought a new political life to the park as it became a symbol of China's "national wound".

Recent developments and plans

There are currently several plans in China for rebuilding the Imperial Gardens, but such moves have been opposed on the grounds that they will destroy an important relic of modern Chinese history. In addition, any rebuilding would be a colossal undertaking, and no rebuilding of above-the-ground structures has been approved. However, the lakes and waterways in the eastern half of the gardens have been dug up again and refilled with water, while hills around the lakes have been cleared of brushwood, recreating long-forgotten vistas. Several temples located inside the Old Summer Palace grounds have also been refurbished and rebuilt.

In February 2005, work was undertaken to reduce water loss from the lakes and canals in the Old Summer Palace by covering a total of 1.33 square kilometres of the beds with a membrane to reduce seepage. The park administration argued the prevention of water loss saves the park money, since water would have to be added to the lakes only once per year instead of three times. However, opponents of the project, such as Professor Zhengchun Zhang of Lanzhou University, feared the measure will destroy the ecology of the park, which depends on the water seepage from the lakes and the connection between the lakes and the underground water system. It is also feared the reduced seepage from the lakes will disturb Beijing's underground water system which is already suffering from depletion. There are also concerns about the gardens, which is a designated heritage site in the city of Beijing, changing their natural appearance. This issue, when brought up with the general public several weeks later, immediately caused an uproar from the press and became one of the hottest debates on the Internet in China due to the still painful memory of foreign humiliation epitomised in the destruction of the Old Summer Palace. The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (BEPB) recently conducted an assessment of the environmental impact of the measure.

A partial copy of the palace, the "New Yuanming Gardens" (圓明新園), was built in 1997 in the southern city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province, as an amusement park of 1.39 km², including an 80,000 m² lake.

Up to the present, many relics which were taken from the Old Summer Palace remain in foreign museums and private collections. Although the Chinese government has tried to recover them, only a few statuettes from the Garden of Eternal Spring have actually been returned. Seven of the 21 columns displayed at the KODE Art Museums in Bergen, Norway were returned to Beijing University in 2014 as part of a deal set up by alumnus Huang Nubo, a real estate developer who donated 10 million Norwegian kroner (US$1.6 million) to the museum, according to the China Daily.

It is still debated in China whether to apply for an inclusion of the Old Summer Palace on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.


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