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The Dashuifa Site of the Old Summer Palace | © Caitriana Nicholson / Flickr
The Dashuifa Site of the Old Summer Palace | © Caitriana Nicholson / Flickr

A Brief History of the Old Summer Palace

Picture of Yufan Lu
Updated: 4 September 2017

Standing in front of the Dashuifa Site at the Old Summer Palace today it is hard to associate it with the “Garden of Gardens” it used to be hailed as in its heyday. But the ruins were indeed once the peak of the Chinese imperial garden art.

The Old Summer Palace, also known as Yuanming Yuan (meaning “Gardens of Perfect Brightness”), was initially built in 1707 as a royal bestowal from the Kangxi Emperor to his fourth son Yinzhen, who later became the Yongzheng Emperor. The Old Summer Palace was continuously under expansion in the years after Yongzheng ascended to the throne. At its pinnacle the Palace had three gardens (Yuanming, Changchun, Qichun), covering an area of 3.5 square kilometers, which is almost eight times the size of the Vatican City. While the Chinese emperors took the Old Summer Palace as their second home and office, spending even longer there than in the Forbidden City, architects over the years absorbed advances of garden design, bringing into being an expo of nearly all the existing garden art of ancient China and an unprecedented blending of oriental and western art. In 1861 Victor Hugo compared the Summer Palace with the Parthenon, acclaiming it as “the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights” built by “architects who are poets”.

The 3D technology was used to restore the past glory of the Old Summer Palace. Screen grab of the 2006 documentary Yuanming Yuan | Courtesy of China Central Television

But however beautiful Hugo’s comments were, the place was destined to be ruined. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the joint British-French army broke into the Old Summer Palace, looted whatever they could take and destroyed what couldn’t be taken away. The attack was followed by a fire ordered by the British High Commissioner to China, Eighth Earl of Elgin, in the aim to destroy the palace completely. It is said that the fire burnt for three days and nights until ashes took over the glories. The fire didn’t quite destroy everything but the Old Summer Palace continued to suffer from lootings by bandits who took advantage of the Eight-Nation Alliance’s invasion in Beijing, mismanagement of the governments in the next few decades, as well as the Cultural Revolution, which little by little led to the doom of the palace.

The Chinese government set up a Yuanmingyuan administration after the Cultural Revolution ended. It took years to reclaim the palace from nature and restore the scattered rocks back to where they used to belong. The ruins we see today at the famous Dashuifa site were kept as they were as “the classroom that the invaders left for the Chinese people”, as said the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.  They also give a glimpse, however faint, of the magnificence of the greatest imperial garden that ever existed in China.

China is slowly but steadily recovering sites in the palace, with ruins that cannot be repaired preserved as they are. So far, Jiuzhou Qingyan, along with another eight of the 40 Scenes of the Old Summer Palace, has been re-opened to the public.

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