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February 4, 2010

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Old Summer Palace scale model

A magnificent scale model of Beijing's Old Summer Palace - complete with precisely replicated palaces, working fountains and minute porcelain vases - is the all-consuming passion of a 60-year-old retired art teacher.

Artist/sculptor Han Sanxi completed the ornate project after 10 years in a warehouse workshop in Yangpu District, assisted by hundreds of volunteer craftsmen supported by the district government.

The meticulous attention to historical and exquisite details is awesome.

The miniature completed in 2007 was first exhibited last August, but is not open to the public at that time - it's on tour around China.

Now Han's mission is to find a permanent home for his monumental work, recreation of a treasure laid waste by British and French troops in 1860 in the Second Opium War.

The model garden, also called Yuan Ming Yuan or Garden of Perfect Brightness, is built to the scale of 1:150. It is 18 meters by 14 meters, covering around 252 square meters. It is housed in a 400-square-meter workshop, which Han has made his home.

It is the most complete such model in existence, says Han who designed the model.

The model of mesmerizing detail features 2,000 distinct buildings, 180 bridges, 30 garden gates, nine boat docks, 200 sightseeing boats, 12,000 trees and 5,000 carved and painted human figures going about life in the imperial gardens.

It has more than 100,000 doors and windows, all of which are perfectly hinged and can be opened and closed. Han says it has "millions" of tiles. Rooftop tiles are ornately carved.

Water pours from a minute replicated working fountain that is only 0.2mm high and a Jingdezhen porcelain vase only 6mm high. Jingdezhen is widely considered to be "China's capital of chinaware."

The landscape contains flowing water, waterfalls and fountains, hills, bridges, pavilions, platforms, chambers and galleries - all recreated down to the last carved door knocker.

Han used red sandalwood, red wood, box wood and other materials, totaling around 60 tons.

He based his work on photographs and artwork of the time, as well as written accounts of the vast imperial gardens outside Beijing.

The gardens were built in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and were famous for extraordinary examples of varied traditional architecture (mostly Chinese but also Mongol and Tibetan), as well as European-style palaces. Its pavilions and galleries contained precious artworks of all kinds.

In 1860, foreign troops burned and ransacked Yuan Ming Yuan, looting the treasures and laying waste to the grounds.

"All I think about is providing a permanent home for Yuan Ming Yuan, and using my sculpture to show this symbol of thousands of years of history to younger generations, making them proud of China's incomparable world treasures," Han says.

Han spends his time inspecting his masterpiece - and looking for a home for his labor of love.

Han, born in 1949 in Shanghai, is a member of China Cultural Treasury Voluntary Collection Committee, an "advanced craftsman" of the China Arts and Crafts Committee, and a member of the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Association.

When Han was a boy, he became fascinated with the Old Summer Place after reading a famous 1928 book, "The Old Summer Palace." Learning about Yuan Ming Yuan became his obsession over the years.

Wang Kangmai, Han's wife, says he spends all his time working, sometimes even suddenly putting down his chopsticks and rushing to execute an inspired idea.

For years the couple only had time to converse, or so it seemed, when they rode their battered old bicycles.

After retiring as an art teacher in 1996, Han dedicated his life to the project and work actually began 10 years ago. His workshop/home is filled with wood, materials and delicate woodworking and painting tools. There's no television, radio or computer to distract him.

"I don't care about living conditions, the only thing I care about is sculpting," says Han.

The model was exhibited last August in the Shanghai International Gymnastics Center on Wuyi Road and visitors were stunned by the achievement.

"It was awesome, a contribution to China of great significance," said one visitor. "To China, this is a source of pride about our world treasure, but it reminds us of the shameful past."

"This artwork and vivid sculptures endow the magnificent buildings a new life," commented another visitor.


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