Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace, known in China as the Gardens of Perfect Brightness and originally called the Imperial Gardens was a complex of palaces and gardens 8 km (5 miles) northwest of the walls of the Imperial City in Beijing, built in the 18th and early 19th century, where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided and handled government affairs (the Forbidden City was used only for formal ceremonies).

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", ), the Imperial Gardens were destroyed by British and French troops in 1860. Today, the destruction of the Gardens of Perfect Brightness is still regarded as a symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation in China.

The Old Summer Palace is located 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.


Initial construction began in 1707, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi and was on a much smaller scale. It was intended as a gift for the emperor's fourth son, later Emperor Yongzheng. In 1725, under Emperor Yongzheng, the Imperial Gardens were greatly expanded. Yongzheng introduced the waterworks of the gardens which created some of the lakes, streams and ponds which greatly complemented the rolling hills and grounds. Yongzheng also named 28 scenic spots within the garden.

By Emperor Qianlong's reign, the second expansion was well underway. Qianlong personally took interest and directed the expansion works. Qianlong also increased the number of scenic spots in the gardens to 40. By the middle of the 19th century, the Imperial Gardens had undergone expansion in one form or another for over 150 years.

Overview of the site

The Imperial Gardens were made up of three gardens: the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper, the Garden of Eternal Spring and the Elegant Spring Garden (); together they covered an area of 3.5 km² (865 acres). They were almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and 8 times the size of the Vatican City. They had hundreds of halls, , people, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes, etc. Several famous landscapes of southern China had been reproduced in the Imperial Gardens, hundreds of invaluable Chinese art masterpieces and antiquities were stored in the halls, making the Imperial Gardens one of the largest museums in the world. Some unique copies of literary work and compilations were also stored inside the Imperial Gardens

The Old Summer Palace is often associated with the European-style palaces (Xi Yang Lou) built of stone. The designers of these structures, the Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, were employed by Emperor Qianlong to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects. Sometimes, visitors unfamiliar with the former layout of the Old Summer Palace are misled to believe that it consisted primarily of European-style palaces. In fact, the area of the Imperial Gardens at the back of the Eternal Spring garden where the European-style buildings were located was small compared to the overall area of the gardens. More than 95% of the Imperial Gardens were made up of essentially Chinese-style buildings. There were also a few buildings in Tibetan and Mongol styles, reflecting the diversity of the Qing Empire.

Titsingh mission at Yuangmingyuan

A Dutch embassy would turn out to be the last occasion in which any European appeared before the Chinese Court within the context of traditional Chinese imperial foreign relations.

Representing Dutch and Dutch East India Company interests, Isaac Titsingh traveled to Pekin in 1794-95 for celebrations of the sixtieth anniversary of the Qianlong Emperor's reign. The Titsingh delegation also included the Dutch-American Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest and the French Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes.. Both published complementary accounts of the mission. Titsingh himself died before he could publish his version of events.

The members of the Titsingh mission were the last European diplomats to savour the mid-winter splendor of the vast Summer Palace before its destruction by the Lord Elgin's troops during the punative Second Opium War in 1860.

Destruction of the Summer Palace

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French expeditionary forces, having marched inland from the coast, reached Beijing (then known as Peking). On the night of October 6 French units diverted from the main attack force towards the Old Summer Palace.

Although the French commander Montauban assured the British commander Grant that "nothing had been touched", extensive looting, also by British and Chinese, took place. The Old Summer Palace was then occupied only by a few eunuchs, the Emperor Xianfeng having fled. There was no significant resistance to the looting from the Chinese, even though many Imperial soldiers were in the surrounding country. On October 18, 1860, the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin, in retaliation for the torture and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners (including two British envoys and a journalist), ordered the destruction of the palace.The Times.

The envoys, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes, had gone 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 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 recognisable. The treatment of their people caused revulsion among the European army.

Destroying the Forbidden City was also thought to be a way of discouraging the Chinese from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool and to exact revenge for the mistreatment of the prisoners.

It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze, taking three days to burn.

Charles George Gordon, a 27-year-old captain in the Royal Engineers 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.

One consolation for the Chinese was that the British and French looters preferred porcelain (much of which still graces English and French country houses) 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. Once the Summer Palace was 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 in the Second Opium War or Arrow War.

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.

According to Prof. Wang Dou Cheng of the People's University in Beijing, not all of Yuanming Yuan perished in the original burning; over time, however, the ruins were further scavenged by Chinese treasure hunters, including during the Cultural Revolution.


For most Chinese (and many non-Chinese) the act of burning the palace was and is perceived as barbaric and criminal. Some contemporary Frenchmen, such as Victor Hugo, disapproved of the action; in his "Expédition de Chine", 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. In his letter Hugo hoped that one day France would feel guilty and return what it had plundered from China.


Following this cultural catastrophe, the Imperial court relocated to the old and austere Forbidden City, where it stayed until 1924, when the Last Emperor was expelled by a republican army. Empress Dowager Cixi built the Summer Palace (頤和園 - "The Garden of Nurtured Harmony") near the Old Summer Palace, but on a much smaller scale than the Old Summer Palace.

Only the European-style palaces survived the fire since, unlike the Chinese-style structures, they were made of stone. A few ruined stones of these European buildings still stand on the site today; 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. The Chinese imperial court restored these buildings and tried to rebuild the whole complex of the Imperial Gardens, but was unable to raise the money and resources due to the difficult situation of China at the time. In 1900, whatever buildings had survived or had been restored were burnt for good by the Western 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 Chinese government and turned into an historical site.


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. The Chinese government decided to keep the ruined site as-is to teach future generations about the consequences of being dominated by foreign powers. 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.

In February 2005, work was undertaken to reduce water loss from the lakes and canals in the Yuanmingyuan by covering a total of 1.33 square kilometres of their beds with a membrane to reduce seepage. The park administration has argued that 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 fear that 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 that 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 are a designated heritage site of the city of Beijing, changing their natural appearance. This issue, when brought into the sight of 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 conducted an assessment of the environmental impact of the measure.

A partial copy of the palace was recently built in the southern city of Zhuhai, in Guangdong province, as an amusement park.

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 have actually been returned; these are displayed in the Beijing National Museum.

Modern photographs and historic depictions

See also



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