Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan Garden Ruins)
Located in the northern part of the Haidian District of Beijing, Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness), aka Old Summer Palace, was one of the most important imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty. Its other nickname, King of Gardens, offers a clue to the totality of its physical setting, its splendid - and splendidly laid out - architecture, which included richly adorned halls, temples and pavilions, and its magnificent gardens, both in the narrow and in the broad sense, the latter being in the sense of a park, since some of the Old Summer Palace's gardens were in fact replicas of entire parks from other localities round about the country, in much the same way that modern-day Chinese theme parks now incorporate reduced-size replicas of famous international landmarks such as Niagra Falls (in USA), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, and the Eiffel Tower.
Yuanmingyuan in the Past
The park's many ponds and lakes are dotted with small islets, and countless bridges span the park's streams, while charming walkways, some tree-lined, connect this vast expanse of grass, trees, water, rockeries, and buildings. Water is in fact the central theme of the Old Summer Palace. Parks are of course synonymous with trees and green grass; the Old Summer Palace has both in abundance, as well as ponds, lakes, and streams. No wonder then, that the original Old Summer Palace park complex was five times larger than the Forbidden City (the official "reception" palace of Chinese emperors) and eight times larger than Rome's Vatican City.
The park was first built by Emperor Kangxi as a gift to his fourth son Prince Yinzhen, who later succeeded his father as Emperor Yongzheng. After the death of Emperor Yongzheng, his son, Emperor Qianlong, who, it must be said, was an even more ardent lover of gardens, continued to invest heavily in the Summer Palace gardens. Thus the combined effort of three generations of emperors, beginning with Emperor Kangxi and ending with this grandson, Emperor Qianlong, made of Yuanmingyuan an incomparable gem among royal gardens the world over. As the French writer and humanist, Victor Hugo, speaking of the treasure trove of artworks amassed at the Summer Palace once wrote: "All the treasures of our [European] cathedrals could not equal this fabulous and magnificent oriental museum... ".
In its heyday, Yuanmingyuan consisted of three different gardens: Yuanmingyuan, or the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper (the entire imperial garden complex was itself known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness); Qichunyuan, or the Elegant Spring Garden; and Changchunyuan, or the Garden of Eternal Spring. Five Chinese emperors - Emperors Yongzheng, Qianlong, Jiaqing, Daoguang and Xianfeng - spent prodigious amounts not only of money here, but also of their time, receiving guests, discussing the business of state, or simply relaxing with friends and family. In this regard, the Summer Palace served as an extension of the Forbidden City.
However, as feudal China drew to an end, the Qing Dynasty government's crises multiplied as well as deepened. Yet, amidst these woes, including a reduced income stream that forced the Qing Dynasty emperor to curtail some of his private hunting and holiday activities, the emperor never ceased to lavish money on Yuanmingyuan, so devoted was he to this national treasure. For example, inside the park's temples are numerous statues of the Buddha and Boddhisatvas in a variety of poses - and in a variety of materials, such as gold, silver, bronze and jade. Alas, most of the treasures of this once glorious summer palace are gone, having been burned or looted during repeated foreign raids, first in 1860 as part of the second Opium War, and again in 1900 as part of the effort to crush the Boxer Rebellion.
In fact, the debacle over the February 25, 2009 auction, staged by Christie's in Paris, of two bronze fountainheads nominally belonging to the estate of the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, is directly related to the 1860 looting of the Summer Palace (there was only one imperial summer palace in those days), since the rightful owner of the two fountainheads, one depicting a rabbit, the other a rat, is China. The auction itself was controversial, sparking official protests from the Chinese government, but the outcome of the auction was even more controversial: the winning bidder - a Chinese patriot, it turns out - refused to pay, claiming that the artworks belong to the Chinese people (to read more about the historical background of the Imperial Summer Palace, now termed the Old Summer Palace, including the episodes of burning and looting, click here).
In China today there is considerable controversy over whether the Old Summer Palace should be restored to its original glory or not. The Chinese people seem to be divided into two mutually exclusive camps on the issue, with one group wishing to keep the park as it is, i.e., as a reminder of past national humiliations, while the other group wishes to draw a line under the past and move forward. The latter group argues that it serves no constructive purpose to hold Beijing's once glorious Summer Palace hostage to events that occurred over a century ago, and that more could be achieved in returning the park to its original splendor, albeit, sadly lacking in the treasures of which it was looted.
It is an argument that is perhaps echoed in the current American debate over whether "Ground Zero", the site of the 9/11 attacks that demolished the Twin Towers of New York City, should remain a graveyard-like memorial to the past, or should be rebuilt into something even more spectacular in order to draw a line under the past. A neutral economist might take the view that the best way to avenge the looting of the Summer Palace would be to return the palace to its former glory, thereby making it a first-class tourist destination that could reclaim at least some of the wealth that it lost. It might also strengthen the argument for someday returning the original artworks that this sumptuous palace once housed.
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