Yuanming Yuan

(The Garden of Perfect Brightness)
The Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness, was a garden palace to the northwest of Beijing, created as a summer retreat by early emperors of the Qing dynasty.
Over the years, as pavilions were added and the landscape of the marshy area remoulded according to imperial fiat creating a fantasy realm for the imperial family, the Yuanming Yuan also became the de facto seat of government for much of the year. As the gardens expanded, themes taken from poetry, myths and stories were used to create themed areas and vistas to create what the architectural historian Charles Moore names as one of the great theme parks, along with Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli and Walt Disney’s modern fantasy at Anaheim.
In the mid eighteenth century the Qianlong emperor—the most celebrated ruler of the dynasty—instructed the Jesuit missionaries who had been sent from Rome to convert the Chinese court to design a series of European-style marble palaces within the precinct of the garden-palace. He wanted to-scale copies of the rococo structures he had seen in the books that the missionaries had used to illustrate the grandeur of Western civilization. Now the emperor bent the Jesuits’ strategy to his own will—he wanted European follies for his diversion; they were obliged to keep their message of salvation to themselves.
A series of syncretic mock-rococo pavilions was thereby erected in the northeastern reaches of the Yuanming Yuan, their marble facades supporting bright liuli-tiled roofs. Called the ‘Western Palaces’ (Xiyang Lou) they included a maze, gazebos, a mosque, loggia, galleries, banquet halls, throne rooms and elaborate fountains and water works. The palaces were filled with the tributes the throne received from European envoys: tapestries, paintings and all manner of precious objects.
In 1860, however, this marvellous palace complex, the largest and most elaborate garden ever built in China, was reduced to a devastated ruin when an Anglo-French imperial force under the command of Lord Elgin (the son of the man who had stripped the Athenian Parthenon of its marble frieze) invaded Beijing. They were there to force the Chinese imperial government to sign a peace treaty following its defeat in the Second Opium War.
This calamitous event, the invasion of the sacred imperial capital and the looting of the palaces, more perhaps than the defeat in the Opium Wars itself, symbolically marked the absolute degradation and humiliation of the Manchu-Chinese government. For later generations the burning of the Yuanming Yuan sounded the death knell of the imperial system itself and marked the beginning of the end of old China. Many of the remaining structures in the grounds were dismantled when the nearby Qingyi Yuan (later known as the Yihe Yuan, or the Summer Palace in English) was rebuilt for the pleasure of the Empress Dowager Cixi in the late nineteenth century.
After 1949, the university district grew up around the remains of the Yuanming Yuan palace in Haidian District. Elite institutions like the Qinghua Attached Middle School and Number 101 Middle School abutted it. Under the People’s Republic, and after decades of neglect and plunder—many of Beijing’s public parks were built using stones and trees taken from the imperial gardens—the Yuanming Yuan was cordoned off for preservation. Nonetheless, it remained a desolate and forsaken spot; the only palpable evidence of its former glory was the marble ruins of the Western Palaces. Once a discrete corner in the palace complex, they became its centrepiece.
As China’s official ruin, a symbol of national humiliation, the Western Palaces were the place where students were educated in patriotic fervour. The original Red Guards of 1966 and their classmates had all visited or read about the Yuanming Yuan and the national shame that its destruction marked. It was this place more than any other that elicited the outrage, anger and ire of youth. The ruins were also the place where new China, the socialist revolution and the Communist cause had their earliest symbolic roots. For, as the authorities told it, it was the awakening that came with the destruction of the Yuanming Yuan that had sparked the will for national renewal among Han Chinese.
Following the Cultural Revolution concerted efforts were made to turn the area into a public part with patriotic significance (and by default a place for avant-garde art events), and the Western Palaces became a focus for officially orchestrated displays of nationalist ardour (and glitz) from 1990. At various stages moneymaking enterprises, like fun-fair rides and shooting galleries, were also a feature of the grounds. From the 1980s, the nearby village of Fuyuan cun was home to rogue artists, and it was raffishly dubbed the ‘East Village’.
In recent years, debates about the future of this monument to the past have centred on whether various long-destroyed pavilions or ‘scenes’ (jing) within the demesne should be rebuilt, a sign to all of a revenant multi-ethnic although Han-centred civilization.
See also: 798

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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