The Old Summer Palace 圓明園, Peking

Ruins of the Haiyantang 海晏堂 - the famous water clock and fountain with 12 bronze statues of the Chinese Zodiac.

Ruins of the Haiyan Tang 海晏堂 – the famous water clock and fountain with 12 bronze statues of the Chinese Zodiac.

If the epicentre of the First Opium War was the port of Canton, the stage for the Second Opium War was here at the Summer Palace in Peking.

The Palace was first constructed in 1707 during the reign of Kangxi, and it was subsequently added to by later Qing Emperors.  In size, it was three times that of the Forbidden City at the heart of Peking.  And it was here, rather than in the Forbidden City that the Emperor and the Royal family lived and held court.

Entrance to the Palace.

Entrance to the Palace.

Pavilion in the Palace

Pavilion in the Palace

Boat on a Lake

Boat on a Lake

The majority of the palace – some 90% of it, was built in the traditional Chinese style, with pavilions, lakes and bridges flanked by rows of willow, cherry and plum trees.

But there was a section of the palace – in its furthest most corner, that had been commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, who was fascinated by all things Western; and built and designed by Italian Jesuits, notably Giuseppe Castiglione, in a so-called “European” style.  Here it was that the famous Haiyantang 海晏堂- a water clock and fountain with twelve statues of the Chinese Zodiac was found (more about this later).

The 10,000 Flowers Maze 萬花陣 is one of the few structures to remain almost entirely intact.

The 10,000 Flowers Maze 萬花陣 is one of the few structures to remain almost entirely intact.

In 1860, in the heat of the Second Opium War, a small group of British envoys, journalists and their accompanying British and Indian troops paid a visit to the Summer Palace under a white flag, in order to negotiate.  They were arrested and tortured, some to death.

In retaliation, Lord Elgin (of Elgin marbles fame) ordered the destruction of the Summer Palace by British and French troops.  Over the course of three days, the palace was looted, razed and burnt.  The Emperor and his family had fled earlier.  He would move the seat of the Qing Dynasty from the Summer Palace to the Forbidden City subsequently.

The high, or low point, rather, of the looting – still a source of national fury in China today – was the loss of the heads of the 12 bronze statues of the Zodiac from the Haiyan Tang to British and French looters.  Over the years, some of the heads have surfaced at auction, and been the focal point of major Chinese efforts to repatriate looted cultural heritage from the Palace.  Seven have since been found and repatriated.

Today, the Summer Palace still stands almost entirely ruined, and has been left deliberately so in order that ordinary Chinese may never forget the humiliation the nation was put through by the Western Powers.  The highlight of the Park is the section that contains the ruins of the European-style palaces – most notably what remains of the Haiyan Tang.

Ruins of a Xiyang Lou 西洋樓, or Western-style Palace, looking like Roman ruins.

Ruins of a Xiyang Lou 西洋樓, or Western-style Palace, looking like Roman ruins.

Ruins of the Fangwai Guan Mansion 方外觀.

Ruins of the Fangwai Guan Mansion 方外觀.

Ruins...

Ruins…

Ruins of the Yuanying Guan 远瀛观.

Ruins of the Yuanying Guan 远瀛观.

A ruined ceremonial path.

A ruined ceremonial path.

The rest of the park, however, is remarkably evocative – despite being in a ruined state.  It is pleasant and idyllic – a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of Beijing city proper.  It is well worth an afternoon, if only to witness everyday Beijingers relaxing and enjoying themselves on paths that only the Emperor and his family could walk on in halcyon days.

As for the Bronze Heads – all seven of them have been put on public display. The Rat and the Rabbit are the National Museum of China; the Horse at the Capital Museum; while the Ox, the Tiger, the Monkey and the Pig are the Poly Art Museum (the museum of the Beijing-based auction house, Poly).

If you have time for one of these venues alone, go to the Poly Art Museum as it is relatively off the beaten track, and one can admire the greatest number of these notorious artefacts in the same place without ever jostling with hordes of people for a view.

Recreation of the 12 bronze Zodiac Animals, to scale.

Recreation of the 12 bronze Zodiac Animals, to scale.

The Ox, the Monkey, the Tiger and the Pig, at the Poly Art Museum, Beijing.

The Pig, the Monkey, the Tiger and the Ox, at the Poly Art Museum, Beijing.

 

Advertisements

About Kennie Ting

I am a wandering cityophile and pattern-finder who is pathologically incapable of staying in one place for any long period of time. When I do, I see the place from different perspectives, obsessive-compulsively.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Art & Architecture, China, Cities & Regions, Landmarks & History, Photography, Travel & Mobility and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s