The Old Summer Palace

The Summer Palace

Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace, known in China as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness (pinyin: Yuan Ming Yuan), and originally called the Imperial Gardens, was a complex of palaces and gardens in Beijing. It is located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) northwest of the walls of the Imperial City, built in the 18th and early 19th century, where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided and handled government affairs (the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies).

Known for its extensive collection of garden and building architectures and other works of art (a popular name in China was the "Garden of Gardens"), the Imperial Gardens were destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Today, the destruction of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness is still regarded as a symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation in China.

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace is located just outside the west gate of Tsinghua University, north of Peking University, and east of the Summer Palace. The postal address is: 28 Qinghua West Road, Beijing, 100084.

Overview of the Old Summer Palace

The Imperial Gardens were made up of three gardens: the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper, the Garden of Eternal Spring , and the Elegant Spring Garden ; together they covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres). They were almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and 8 times the size of the Vatican City. On the grounds stood hundreds of structures such as halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes, etc. Several famous landscapes of southern China had been reproduced in the Imperial Gardens, hundreds of masterpieces of Chinese art and antiquities were stored in the halls, making the Imperial Gardens one of the largest collections in the world. Some unique copies of literary work and compilations were also stored inside the Imperial Gardens.

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace is often associated with the European-style palaces (Xi Yang Lou) built of stone. The designers of these structures, the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, were employed by the Qianlong emperor to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects. Sometimes, visitors unfamiliar with the former layout of the Old Summer Palace are misled to believe that it consisted primarily of European-style palaces. In fact, the area of the Imperial Gardens at the back of the Eternal Spring garden where the European-style buildings were located was small compared to the overall area of the gardens. More than 95% of the 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.

Destruction of the Old Summer Palace

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces, having marched inland from the coast, reached Beijing (then known as Peking). On the night of October 6 French units diverted from the main attack force towards the Old Summer Palace.

Although the French commander Montauban assured the British commander Grant that "nothing had been touched", extensive looting, also by Chinese took place. The Old Summer Palace was then occupied only by a few eunuchs, the Xianfeng emperor having fled. There was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Imperial soldiers were in the surrounding country.

On October 18, 1860, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, in retaliation for the torture and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners (including two British envoys and a journalist for The Times), ordered the destruction of the palace.

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The Ruins of the Old Summer Palace

The envoys, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes, had gone ahead of the main force under a flag of truce to negotiate with the Prince I at Tungchow. After a day of talks, on September 29 they and their small escort of British and Indian troopers were suddenly surrounded and taken prisoner. They were taken to the Board of Punishments in Beijing where they were confined and tortured. Parkes and Loch were returned after two weeks, with fourteen other survivors. Twenty British, French and Indian captives died. Their bodies were barely recognizable. The treatment of their people caused revulsion among the European army.[8][not in citation given.

Destroying the Old Summer Palace was also thought to be a way of discouraging the Chinese Empire from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool and to exact revenge for the mistreatment of the prisoners.

It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking a total of three days to burn. On October 18th, more than 300 eunuchs, maids, and workers in the palace were unable to escape and burned to death due to the gate of the palace being locked.The palace was plundered and burned twice. The first time was in 1860 by French and British army forces, and only 13 royal buildings survived to remain intact, most of them in the remote areas or by the lake side. The second time was in 1900 during the Eight-Nation Alliance invasion, and nothing remained this time.

One consolation for the Chinese was that the 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.

Once the Summer Palace was 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 in the Second Opium War or Arrow War.

Like the Forbidden City, no ordinary Chinese citizen had ever been allowed into the Summer Palace, as it was used exclusively by the Imperial family. (See Personal narrative of occurrences during Lord Elgin's second embassy to China, 1860 by Henry Loch, 1869). The burning of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness is still a very sensitive issue in China today.

According to Prof. Wang Dou Cheng of the People's University in Beijing, not all of Yuan Ming Yuan perished in the original burning[15]; over time, however, the ruins were further scavenged by Chinese treasure hunters, including during the Cultural Revolution.

Summer Palace

Following this cultural catastrophe, the Imperial court relocated to the old and austere Forbidden City, where it stayed until 1924, when the Last Emperor was expelled by a republican army. Empress Dowager Cixi built the Summer Palace ("The Garden of Nurtured Harmony") near the Old Summer Palace, but on a much smaller scale than the Old Summer Palace.

Only the European-style palaces survived the fire since, unlike the Chinese-style structures, they were made of stone. A few ruined stones of these European buildings still stand on the site today; 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. The Chinese imperial court restored these buildings and tried to rebuild the whole complex of the Imperial Gardens, but was unable to raise the money and resources due to the difficult situation of China at the time. In 1900, whatever buildings had survived or had been restored were burnt for good by the expeditionary forces sent to quell the Boxer Rebellion.

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 Chinese government and turned into an historical site.