Old Summer Palace

Formerly known as the Imperial Gardens, the Old Summer Palace was a complex of palaces and gardens in Beijing, China located 5 miles northwest of the walls of the former Imperial City section. It was built during the 18th and early 19th centuries as the imperial residence of the Qing Dynasty emperor and was where state affairs were handled, as opposed to the Forbidden City, which was used for formal ceremonies. This “garden of gardens”, the pinnacle of Chinese imperial garden and palace design, was an architectural wonder, not only well-known for its gardens, but also for its architecture, art and historical treasures. Several famous landscapes of southern China had even been reproduced here.

The Imperial Gardens were comprised of three Gardens: the “Garden of Perfect Brightness” (Yuánmíng Yuán), the “Garden of Eternal Spring” (Chángchūn Yuán), and the “Elegant Spring Garden” (Qǐchūn Yuán). Together, they covered 3.5 sq. km (860 acres), which is almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City and 8 times the size of the Vatican City, and contained hundreds of structures (halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes and bridges). Additionally, the gardens stored hundreds of works of Chinese artwork and antiquities, along with unique copies of literary works and compilations.

Construction of the Old Summer Palace began in 1707 and was intended as a gift for the Emperor’s 4th son (who would go on to greatly expand the gardens a generation later). There were as many as 50 scenic spots created within the gardens, including a number of interactive “living tableaux”. One such scene, involving court eunuchs pretending to be rural farmers on an island, was known as “Crops as Plentiful as Fields”. Another, called the “Courtyard of Universal Happiness”, involved a mock village where the imperial family could interact with “shopkeepers” (which were really just eunuchs in disguise).

During the Second Opium War, in 1860, after a small delegation sent to negotiate a Qing surrender had been imprisoned and tortured (and in some cases killed), the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, ordered his troops to retaliate by carrying out the complete destruction of the palace. Following the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, the Qing imperial court relocated to the Forbidden City.

Even though over 95% of the Imperial Gardens were Chinese-style buildings (including Tibetan and Mongol styles), the most visible remains today can be found in the Western Mansions section, built to satisfy the Emperor’s taste for “exotic” buildings. The 18th century European-style buildings were constructed of stone, but with Chinese columns, colored tiles and brick walls. There were also Western-style palaces, a pavilion, outdoor theatre stage, aviaries, a maze, and waterworks. The main fountain had the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac spouting water, in turn, every 2 hours, with all of them spouting together at noon!

The burning of the Old Summer Palace is still a very sensitive issue in China today, with its destruction being perceived as barbaric and criminal, not only by many Chinese, but by external observers as well. A partial copy of the palace (known as the “New Yuanming Gardens“), built in 1997, currently stands as an amusement park in the southern city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province.

  • Visited: May 1998

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