‘Old’ Summer Palace 圆明园

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond

This place is truly an Imperial residence; the park is said to be eighteen miles round, and laid out in all the taste, variety, and magnificence which distinguish the rural scenery of Chinese gardening. There is no one very extensive contiguous building but several hundreds of pavilions scattered through the grounds and all connected together by close arbors, by passages apparently cut through stupendous rocks, or by fairy land galleries, emerging or receding in the perspective, and so contrived as to conceal the real design of communication and yet contribute to the general purpose and effect intended to arise from the whole. The various beauties of the spot, its lakes and river, together with its superb edifices, which I saw (and yet I saw but a very small part), so strongly impresssed my mind at this moment that I feel incapable of describing them.
Lord Macartney, An Embassy to China, London, 1797

By the evening of the 19th October, the summer palaces had ceased to exist, and in their immediate vicinity, the very face of nature seemed changed; some blackened gables and piles of burnt timbers alone indicating where the royal palaces had stood. In many palaces the inflammable pine trees near the buildings had been consumed with them, leaving nothing but their charred trunks to mark the site. When we first entered the gardens they reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales; we marched from them upon the 19th October, leaving them a dreary waste of ruined nothings.
Garnet Wolseley, Narrative of the War with China in 1860, London, 1862

With regard to the destruction of the summer palace, I believe that, politically speaking, it was a mistake. It was necessary that some great reprisal should be made for the outrages committed by the Chinese; but the destruction should have taken place inside the city, and not twelve miles off; for so ignorant are the large body of the Chinese of what passes outside their four walls, that there are many here in Peking who to this day believe that we had to pay an indemnity for leave to withdraw our troops, and that we are only here on sufferance. If this is the case in Peking, in the provinces people must be still further from the truth, and it is the policy of the Government to keep up the delusion. Had the Imperial palace in Peking been destroyed the matter would have been notorious to all, and its recollection would not have been blown away with the last cloud of smoke from Yuen-Ming-Yuen.
Algernon B. Freeman-Mitford, The Attaché at Peking, London, 1900 (written 1865).

Although both the Yuánmíng Yuán and the Yíhé Yuán palaces, then one linked complex, were destroyed by British and French troops during the occupation of Běijīng in 1860, much of the ‘old’ palace area went swiftly back under the plough. There are now only a few remains of what George Kates called ‘Européenerie’ — neo-Baroque buildings of stone and Chinese glazed tile built by the Jesuits at the request of the Qiánlóng emperor, which make the otherwise rather sad site well worth visiting.

The Jesuit painter Jean-Denis Attiret said that the Kāngxī emperor, seeing plans of European houses of several storeys, remarked, ‘Europe must be a very small country, and very wretched, if there is not enough land to extend the city and people have to live in the air.’ In contrast, sometime British Prime Minister Lord Stanley reportedly remarked to Sir Thomas Wade, then Chargé d’Affaires at the British Legation, ‘Peking’s a gigantic failure, isn’t it? Not a two-storied house in the whole place, eh?’

Qiánlóng clearly had a more modern outlook, for in addition to the vast area of Chinese gardens already constructed by his grandfather Kāngxī he employed Jesuit painters Attiret, Giuseppe Castiglione, and Ignace Sichelbart, and Augustinian Jean-Damascène Sallusti, to construct buildings for him in the north of the Cháng Chūn Yuán (长春园, Garden of Eternal Spring), which occupies the northeast corner of the site.

The main entrance, where buses and metro bring you, is on the south side of the Qǐ Chūn Yuán (绮春园, Garden of Gorgeous Spring), which is itself the southernmost extant part of the site. It’s a 10–15-minute walk past lotus-filled ponds to reach what is now called the Xī Yáng Lóu Yízhǐ Jǐng Qū (西洋楼遗址景区, the scenic area of ruined Western buildings). These extensive ruins are unlike anything else in China — pieces of life-sized models of Sinicised Italian baroque buildings lying in heaps like a 3D jigsaw puzzle freshly emptied from the box, waiting to be assembled into a reduced-scale oriental Versailles (to which the Jesuits compared their work). Jesuits Michel Benoist or Benoît (despite swearing to his lack of ability) and François Bourgeois were asked to design a complicated series of fountains that played among several palaces, pavilions, kiosks, music rooms, a theatre, an orangery, an aviary, and a maze. The decorative exuberance of mid 18th-century Europe was executed by Chinese craftsmen who knew nothing of it at all and who introduced mutations of style and proportion. The larger ruins have adjacent models showing quite how extravagant they originally were.

One of the fountains had statues of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, each in turn spouting a jet of water for two hours, so that it also functioned as a clock. Seven of these animals’ heads have re-appeared on the art market since 2000, with the Chinese government causing a rumpus each time (see Losing Their Heads, and Where’s the Loot? The whereabouts of the other five remain unknown.

According to the signs at the site, one building was a mosque, built for Qiánlóng’s favourite concubine, the Xiāng Fēi (香妃, Fragrant Concubine), supposedly buried with him at the Eastern Qīng Tombs (see The Legend of the Fragrant Concubine). This was intended to soothe the homesick woman for whom Qiánlóng supposedly built several follies around Běijīng (including another pulled down in modern times at Zhōng Nán Hǎi). Had she been from Paris rather than Xīnjiāng the building might perhaps have seem familiar. In the unlikely event the Jesuits actually built a mosque they failed to record it, so this building was possibly a theatre, in which some claim animated scenery reproduced the landscape around Aksu in Xīnjiāng (although the concubine’s home is often given as Kashgar, which also claims to have her tomb).

The maze, all the rage in Europe at the time, has been reconstructed in stone. Called the Maze of Myriad Flowers, it has walls only about four feet high, so cheating is easy. Nevertheless, it’s full of Chinese shouting ‘Where’s your mother got to?’ to each other from different parts. At the Mid-Autumn Festival the emperor sat in a pavilion at at the centre, and the princesses ran around trying to reach him carrying lotus lanterns made of yellow silk, the winner receiving a reward. Presumably the maze was harder in the dark.

In the site’s museum there are copies of contemporary illustrations of the palaces, and it’s possible to see from the work of early photographers (Child, Ohlmer, Piry, Mumm, Alimoff, Anner, Bishop, Black, Sirén, Gamble, Morrison, and von Perckhammer) that even after the troops had done their work in 1860 the buildings were substantially more intact than they are now. Some still rose as high as three storeys and others had been overlooked altogether and dismantled much later. In fact the plundering of stone, ceramics, and brick to use in buildings elsewhere continued right up to the 1970s.

Yuánmíng Yuán, about 11km northwest of the city centre in Hǎidiàn district, t 6254 3670, www.yuanmingyuanpark.cn/ymyen, 7am–7pm, May–Aug; 7am–6.30pm, Apr, Sep, & Oct; 7am–5.30pm, Jan–Mar. ¥25 (¥10 park only). m Yuánmíng Yuán Park (Line 4) exit B. b to 圆明园南门: 特6, 运通124线, 319, 320, 331, 432, 438, 498, 508, 579, 628, 664, 696, 697.

The park is mostly flat, but the authorities do nevertheless make it easy for the less limber to get around, offering electric carts (电瓶车, diànpíngchē, ¥5 per trip) and electric wheelchairs (轮椅, lúnyǐ, free, with ¥500 deposit).

m Xī Yuán (one stop west on line 4, or walking distance west of the main gate) has ‘Starry Street’ with apparently almost every single Western fast food outlet you’ve ever heard of (Dairy Queen, McDonald’s, Starbucks, KFC, etc.) rounded up in one place and in pseudo-European buildings that show both a lack of taste and no sense of irony. m Line 4 will also take you to stop Běi Gōng Mén for the Summer Palace, as will b 331, 508, 579, and 696 from the main south gate (stop 颐和园). b 331 goes on to Běijīng Botanical Gardens and the Sleeping Buddha Temple (stop 北京植物园南门).

See Summer Palaces, Summer Palace, and Gate of Good Luck, Construction and Corruption, Architecture and Xenophobia.

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For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.