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November 3, 2013

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‘Versailles of East’ destroyed in war

‘Versailles of East’ destroyed in war

The Old Summer Palace, called Yuanmingyuan in Chinese, was once known as the “Garden of Gardens,” “Versailles of the East” and a “Wonder of Human Civilization.”

Covering about 350 hectares, the imperial complex of palaces and gardens is located in the northwest suburbs of Beijing, next to the Summer Palace.

In 1707, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) began to build the complex and intended to give it as a present to his fourth son, who later succeeded him as Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735).

But it took five Qing emperors about 150 years to complete the palace, turning it into the largest imperial landscape garden in the world in the mid-19th century. The Old Summer Palace was made up of three imperial gardens, namely, the Yuangmingyuan or the Garden of Perfect Brightness, the Garden of Eternal Spring and the Elegant Spring Garden. The builders of the complex combined the features of the traditional Chinese imperial gardens and other distinctive gardens all around the country, particularly, the exquisitely designed gardens in areas south of the Yangtze River.

In addition, the Qing government had employed two Westerners, namely, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) from Italy and Michel Benoist (1715-1774) from France, to help design European architecture in the gardens.

Castiglione was a missionary in China and was later employed as a painter in the Qing imperial court. Benoist was a Jesuit scientist and served Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) for 30 years and designed many elegant waterworks for the Qing imperial gardens.

Upon its completion, the complex boasted more than 150 ethereal man-made scenes and several hundred buildings with a total floor space of more than 160,000 square meters.

It housed thousands of Chinese artworks, treasures, rare copies of literature and priceless antiquities. It was then also reputed to be one of the top art museums in the world.

It became the favorite venue of many Qing emperors as their residence and offices for handling government affairs. But that didn’t last long.

In 1860, the “Wonder of Human Civilization” was looted and destroyed by British and French troops during an invasion into the Qing capital during the Second Opium War (1856-60). Within three days, the vast imperial complex was burned to the ground.

In a letter to a captain of the Anglo-French force that ravaged the Old Summer Palace, French writer Victor Hugo called it “a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.”

However, he continued, “This wonder has disappeared. 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. We Europeans are the civilized ones, and for us the Chinese are the barbarians. This is what civilization has done to barbarism.”

Hugo also expressed his hope that one day France would feel guilty and return what it had plundered.

In recent years, as more Chinese have become affluent, some have tried to retrieve some of the looted treasures through international auctions.

Also, the Chinese government has placed the Old Summer Palace on a list of key cultural sites under special protection. A great deal of money has already been spent on preserving and repairing some of the destroyed buildings and scenes in the gardens.

Today, the ruins of the gardens attract thousands of visitors every year. And there also are debates among government departments, historians, architects and scholars on whether and how to rebuild the Old Summer Palace.

亭 (ting) pavilion

Ting, a small and light roadside roofed structure, first appeared in China during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when these small pavilions were built along main pathways across the country at an interval of about 2.5 kilometers or 5 kilometers for couriers and travelers to have a rest.

Thus ting 亭 (pavilion) in Chinese has the same pronunciation as the verb ting Í£ (to stop) as the former was designed to serve as a stop on one’s journey. Made of wood, bamboo or stone, most such pavilions commanded a good view. So, gradually, they were introduced into gardens and parks and became a ubiquitous landscape element during the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) and the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

As an extremely popular architectural element in ancient China, ting has appeared often in Chinese literature, including poems, as beautiful backdrops, monuments or a favorite rendezvous for lovers.



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