Old Summer Palace

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Not to be confused with the Summer Palace, also in Beijing. For other places called the "Summer Palace", see Summer Palace (disambiguation).
Old Summer Palace
Emperor’s Private Residence.jpg
The Old Summer Palace as depicted in Forty Views of the Yuanmingyuan, a series of paintings completed in 1744
Traditional Chinese 圓明園
Simplified Chinese 圆明园
Literal meaning Gardens of Perfect Brightness
Imperial Gardens
Traditional Chinese 御園
Simplified Chinese 御园

The Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as 圆明园 Yuánmíngyuán (the Gardens of Perfect Brightness), 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 and was built in the 18th and early 19th century as the place where the emperors of the Qing dynasty resided and handled government affairs (the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies). The Old Summer Palace was 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", simplified Chinese: 万园之园; traditional Chinese: 萬園之園; pinyin: wàn yuán zhī yuán). Nearby and to the south was an extensive imperial hunting park known as "Nanyuan".

In 1860 during the Second Opium War, as the Anglo-French force relentlessly approached Beijing, two British envoys, a journalist for The Times and a small escort of British and Indian troopers were sent to meet with the Royal Prince under a flag of truce[1] to negotiate Chinese surrender. Meanwhile, the French and British troops reached the palace and conducted extensive looting and destruction.[2] Later on, as news emerged that the delegation sent for negotiation was imprisoned and tortured, resulting in twenty deaths,[3] the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace, which was then carried out by British and French troops.[2]

The Old Summer Palace is in Haidian District 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.


The Imperial Gardens as they once stood
Plan of the Old Summer Palace

The Imperial Gardens at the Old Summer Palace were made up of three gardens:

  1. Garden of Perfect Brightness proper
  2. Garden of Eternal Spring (simplified Chinese: 长春园; traditional Chinese: 長春園; pinyin: Chángchūn Yuán)
  3. Elegant Spring Garden (simplified Chinese: 绮春园; traditional Chinese: 綺春園; pinyin: Qǐchūn Yuán)

Together, they covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres), almost five times the size of the Forbidden City grounds and eight times the size of Vatican City. Hundreds of structures, such as halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes, and bridges, stood on the grounds.

In addition, hundreds of examples of Chinese artwork and antiquities were stored in the halls, along with unique copies of literary works and compilations. Several famous landscapes of southern China had been reproduced in the Imperial Gardens.

Western mansions[edit]

Main article: Xiyang Lou

The most visible architectural remains of the Old Summer Palace can be found in the 'Western mansions' (Xīyáng Lóu) section of 18th century European-style palaces, fountains and waterworks, and formal gardens. The designers of these structures built of stone were Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were employed by the Qianlong emperor to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects. However, the European-style buildings only occupied an area along the back of the Eternal Spring Garden that was small compared to the overall area of the gardens. More than 95% of the Imperial Gardens were made up of Chinese-style buildings. There were also a few buildings in Tibetan and Mongol styles, reflecting the diversity of the Qing Empire.


Forty Views of the Yuanmingyuan
Old Summer Palace Historic drawing.

Initial construction of the Old Summer Palace began in 1707, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. It was intended as a small gift for the emperor's fourth son, the future Yongzheng Emperor, who would greatly expand the Imperial Gardens in 1725. Yongzheng also introduced the waterworks of the gardens, creating lakes, streams, and ponds to complement the rolling hills and grounds, and named 28 scenic spots within the garden.

In the Qianlong Emperor's reign, the second expansion was well underway and the number of scenic spots increased to 50 (Qianlong personally directed construction). The splendors of the palace and the grounds were depicted in the Forty Views of the Yuanmingyuan, an album produced in 1744 by the Qianlong emperor's court painters.[4]

The last European appearance in the Old Summer Palace in the context of traditional Chinese imperial foreign relations was a diplomatic mission representing Dutch and Dutch East India Company interests.[5] The Titsingh delegation included Isaac Titsingh,[6] the Dutch-American Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest,[7] and the Frenchman Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes.[8] Both published complementary accounts of the mission (Titsingh himself died before he could publish his version of events).


Looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.
Drawing of formal European gardens in the Xiyang Lou (Western mansions) section.
Ruins of the European-style palaces

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces, having marched inland from the coast, reached Peking (Beijing).

On September 29, two envoys, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes went ahead of the main force under a flag of truce to negotiate with the Prince I at Tungchow. After a day of talks, they and their small escort of British and Indian troopers (including two British envoys and Thomas William Bowlby, a journalist for The Times) 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.[3]

On the night of October 6, French units diverted from the main attack force towards the Old Summer Palace. The palace was then occupied only by a few eunuchs, the Xianfeng Emperor having fled. Although the French commander Montauban assured the British commander Grant that "nothing had been touched", there was extensive looting by both French and British.[9] There was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Imperial soldiers were in the surrounding country.[9]

On October 18, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin retaliated to the torture and executions by ordering the destruction of the palace.[10] Destroying the Old Summer Palace was also thought to be a way of discouraging the Chinese Empire from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool.[11] It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking a total of three days to burn. Only 13 royal buildings survived intact, most of them in the remote areas or by the lakeside. The palace was again sacked and completely destroyed in 1900 during the Eight-Nation Alliance invasion.[12] Charles George Gordon, then a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers, was part of the 1860 force and wrote:

We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money...I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.

British and French looters preferred porcelain (much of which still graces English and French country houses[13]) 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.[14]

Once the Summer Palace had been 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 of the war.[15]

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.[13]

According to Prof. Wang Daocheng of the People's University in Beijing, not all of the palace was destroyed in the original burning.[16] Instead, some historical records indicate that 16 of the important garden sceneries survived the destruction in 1860.[16] Wang identifies the eras of the Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution as two significant periods that contributed further to the destruction of the Yuanming Yuan.[16]


The act of burning the palace has been perceived as barbaric and criminal by many Chinese, as well as by outside observers. In his "Expédition de Chine", Victor Hugo described the looting as, "Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain."[17] In his letter, Hugo hoped that one day France would feel guilty and return what it had plundered from China.[18]


The pavilion and the stone arch are among the few remaining buildings in the Old Summer Palace

Following the sacking of the Old Summer Palace, the Imperial Court relocated to the Forbidden City.

In 1873, the teenaged Tongzhi Emperor attempted to rebuild the Old Summer Palace, on the pretext of turning it into a place of retirement for his two former regents, the dowager empresses Ci'an and Cixi. However, the court lacked the financial resources to rebuild the palace, and at the urging of the imperial court, the emperor finally agreed to stop the project in 1874. During the 1880s, an adjacent imperial palace and garden, the "Garden of Clear Ripples" was restored for the use of Dowager Empress Cixi as a new Summer Palace (頤和園 - "The Garden of Nurtured Harmony"), albeit on a smaller scale.

In the present day, the ruins of the European-style palaces are the most prominent building remnants on the site. 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. Some of these buildings were restored by the Emperor Tongzhi before the project was abandoned. In 1900, many of the buildings that 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 government and turned into a historical site. The Yuan Ming Yuan Artists Colony became famous for germinating a new wave of Chinese painters such as Fang Lijun and musicians such as Fa Zi on the site before it was shut down by the government and many artists relocated to the Song Zhuang area outside of Beijing.[19] Debates in the 1990s arose regarding restoration and development issues and a more recent environmental controversy brought a new political life to the park as it became a symbol of China's "national wound."[20]

Recent developments and plans[edit]

Parts of the Zheng Jue Temple of Elegant Spring Garden are being refurbished

There are currently several plans in China for rebuilding the Imperial Gardens, but such moves have been opposed on the grounds that they will destroy an important relic of modern Chinese history. In addition, any rebuilding would be a colossal undertaking, and no rebuilding of above-the-ground structures has been approved. However, the lakes and waterways in the eastern half of the gardens have been dug up again and refilled with water, while hills around the lakes have been cleared of brushwood, recreating long-forgotten vistas. Several temples located inside the Old Summer Palace grounds have also been refurbished and rebuilt.

In February 2005, work was undertaken to reduce water loss from the lakes and canals in the Yuan Ming Yuan by covering a total of 1.33 square kilometers of the beds with a membrane to reduce seepage. The park administration argued the prevention of water loss saves the park money, since water would have to be added to the lakes only once per year instead of three times. However, opponents of the project such as Professor Zhengchun Zhang of Lanzhou University feared the measure will destroy the ecology of the park, which depends on the water seepage from the lakes and the connection between the lakes and the underground water system. It is also feared the reduced seepage from the lakes will disturb Beijing's underground water system which is already suffering from depletion. There are also concerns about the gardens, which is a designated heritage site in the city of Beijing, changing their natural appearance. This issue, when brought up with the general public several weeks later, immediately caused an uproar from the press and became one of the hottest debates on the Internet in China due to the still painful memory of foreign humiliation epitomized in the destruction of this "Garden of Gardens (萬園之園)". The Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (BEPB) recently[when?] conducted an assessment of the environmental impact of the measure.

A partial copy of the palace, the "New Yuan Ming Palace" (圓明新園), was built in 1997 in the southern city of Zhuhai, in Guangdong province, as an amusement park of 1.39 km², including an 80,000 m² lake.[21]

To this day many relics which were taken from the gardens remain in foreign museums and private collections. Although the Chinese government has tried to recover them, only a few statuettes from The Eternal Spring garden of the Yongzheng Emperor have actually been returned. Seven of the twenty-one columns displayed at the KODE Art Museums in Bergen, Norway were returned to Peking University in 2014 as part of a deal set up by alumnus Huang Nubo, a real estate developer who donated 10 million Norwegian kroner ($1.6 million) to the museum, according to the China Daily newspaper.[22][23]

It is still debated in China whether to apply for an inclusion of the Old Summer Palace on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.[24]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wolseley, Garnett Joseph (1862). Narrative of the war with China in 1860; to which is added the account of a short residence with the Tai-ping rebels at Nanking and a voyage from thence to Hankow (1862). London, Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts. p. 261. OCLC ocm10947915. Retrieved 1 September 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Bowlby, Chris (2 February 2015). "The palace of shame that makes China angry". BBC News. Retrieved 28 February 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Wolseley, Garnett Joseph (1862). Narrative of the war with China in 1860; to which is added the account of a short residence with the Tai-ping rebels at Nanking and a voyage from thence to Hankow (1862). London, Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts. p. 276. OCLC ocm10947915. Retrieved 1 September 2009. 
  4. ^ Lillian M. Li, The 40 Scenes MIT Visualizing Culture
  5. ^ O'Neil, Patricia O. (1995). Missed Opportunities: Late 18th Century Chinese Relations with England and the Netherlands. [Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington]
  6. ^ Duyvendak, J.J.L. (1937). 'The Last Dutch Embassy to the Chinese Court (1794-1795).' T'oung Pao 33:1-137.
  7. ^ van Braam Houckgeest, Andreas Everardus. (1797). Voyage de l'ambassade de la Compagnie des Indes Orientales hollandaises vers l'empereur de la Chine, dans les années 1794 et 1795; see also 1798 English translation: An authentic account of the embassy of the Dutch East-India company, to the court of the emperor of China, in the years 1974 and 1795, Vol. I.
  8. ^ de Guignes, Chrétien-Louis-Joseph (1808). Voyage a Pékin, Manille et l'Ile de France.
  9. ^ a b M'Ghee, Robert. (1862). How we got to Pekin: A Narrative of the Campaign in China of 1860, pp. 202-216.
  10. ^ Hsu, Immanuel. (1985). The Rise of Modern China, p. 215.
  11. ^ Endacott, G. B. (2005) [1962]. A biographical sketch-book of early Hong Kong. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 978-962-209-742-1. 
  12. ^ 火燒圓明園(Huoshao Yuanmingyuan Burning the Yuanmingyuan)China.com
  13. ^ a b Chris Bowlby (2 February 2015). "The palace of shame that makes China angry". BBC. 
  14. ^ "Chinese lawyers apply for injunction to stop sale of stolen relics" China Daily February 22, 2008; updated 2009
  15. ^ Hernon, Ian. 1998. Britain's Forgotten Wars.
  16. ^ a b c Wang Daocheng (2005) in "Should Yuanmingyuan Be Rebuilt?", People's Daily Online
  17. ^ Hugo, Victor. "The sack of the summer palace," UNESCO Courier. November 1985.
  18. ^ Angela Tsai, Angela et al."Splendors of a Bygone Age," Tsu Chi Foundation.
  19. ^ Zhao HongYi, "SongZhuang Remembers," Beijing Today (Oct 27, 2013): 1 [1]
  20. ^ Haiyan Lee, "The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan," Modern China 35.2 (March 1, 2009 2009): 155-190. [2]
  21. ^ New Yuanming Palace at travelchinaguide.com
  22. ^ Bree Feng (9 February 2014). "Despite Frigid Relations, Chinese Relics Coming Home From Norway". The New York Times. 
  23. ^ "Return of Old Summer Palace relics delayed". IISS. 12 January 2015. 
  24. ^ http://www.china.org.cn/travel/2012-11/08/content_27049044.htm


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°00′26″N 116°17′33″E / 40.00722°N 116.29250°E / 40.00722; 116.29250