Old Summer Palace
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The Old Summer Palace was a complex of palaces and three independent but interconnected gardens that were originally known as the Imperial Gardens. During the time of the Qing dynasty in the early 18th century, the grounds of the Old Summer Palace served as a private pleasure garden for the emperor and his family. Later Qing emperors made the Old Summer Palace the main imperial residence where all state affairs were handled. The Forbidden City in the center of Beijing was then only used for formal ceremonies. Both the Old Summer Palace and the Forbidden City could not be entered by commoners during imperial times.
Whereas most buildings that once stood throughout the Old Summer Palace were destroyed during tumultuous times in history (more on that later in this article), the gardens still exist today though their appearance has certainly changed over the centuries. The three gardens are the Garden of Eternal Spring (Changchunyuan), the Garden of Blossoming Spring (Qichunyuan) and the Garden of Perfect Splendor (Yuanmingyuan). Together, they cover an area of about 350 hectares. Yuanmingyuan is also the name under which the entire complex is known to Chinese people today, even though that is technically only one of the three gardens.
The history of the Old Summer Palace began with the initial construction of the gardens in 1707. Their gradual expansion continued for 150 years. The Qianlong Emperor initiated the construction of European-style palaces in 1747 in a small area in the back of the Garden of Eternal Spring. In front of the largest palace, the Haiyantang, stood the famous Grand Waterworks. Twelve bronze zodiac animal heads once spouted water in turn as a part of an elaborate clock fountain. There was also a labyrinth maze garden just like it was fashionable in European palace gardens like Versailles at that period in time. It is however a misconception that all the palaces that once stood on the grounds of the Old Summer Palace were Western in style. In fact, more than 95% of the buildings were Chinese in style and there were even a few Tibetan and Mongol-style buildings.
In their heyday, the Chinese imperial gardens of the Old Summer Palace were praised as the "Garden of Gardens" and Europeans also called it the "Versailles of the East". Representing the pinnacle in architectural design and horticultural landscaping, the Old Summer Palace was an imperial summer resort that once far-exceeded the splendor of the nearby Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) on every level. Hundreds of structures such as palatial halls, pavilions, temples, galleries and bridges once stood on the grounds and distinct scenic spots in the gardens recreated famous landscapes of southern China with exotic plants from all over the country. For that purpose, artificial lakes, streams and ponds were created on a massive scale so that 40% of the garden was then covered by rivers and lakes.
The halls served as a kind of imperial museum, storing and displaying cultural artifacts, antiquities and the finest Chinese artwork ever assembled. One of the halls that unfortunately no longer stands, the Wenyuan Hall (Hall of Literary Profundity), was one of the four most famous imperial libraries and stored an immense collection of precious ancient books, including works of literature and compilations such as the Complete Collection of Four Treasures.
In October 1860, nearly all the splendor of the Old Summer Palace was reduced to rubble and ashes as a punitive act by the Anglo-French Allied Forces. The soldiers looted as much as they could carry, including the twelve bronze animal heads of the Grand Waterworks fountain (some of which have been returned to China in recent years). Countless valuable artwork that was then stolen is now found in 47 museums around the world. After the palace was looted, thousands of soldiers took 3 days to completely destroy it and burn it to the ground. According to historical records, only 16 of the once more than 100 garden scenes as well as a few Chinese-style buildings survived the destruction. To make things even worse, the few buildings that survived the destruction of 1860 and those that had been restored or rebuilt in the years that followed were all completely destroyed in 1900 when the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded Beijing.
The ruins of the Old Summer Palace are now a part of the Yuanmingyuan Park which is located in the northern part of Haidian district in Beijing. In order to ensure the optimal preservation of the historic ruins, the area became a key cultural site under special protection of the district and municipal governments. It was first opened to the public on a trial basis in June 1988 as a historic park. A visit of Yuanmingyuan Park is made worthwhile by the natural beauty of its garden landscape and the historical significance of its ruins. More than a dozen replicas of historic buildings have been constructed in recent years and several temples have been refurbished and rebuilt. Together with the historic ruins and the reforested Chinese garden landscape, visitors can now gain a good impression of what once was one of the most formidable palaces ever built. There is also an exhibition hall in the park whose exhibits help you to visualize the former glory of the Old Summer Palace.