Yuanmingyuan (Garden of perfect splendor) is renowned throughout the world for its fabled charms and association with Chinese modern history. Extolled as the “Garden of Gardens” and the “Versailles of the East” during its heyday. It was an imperial summer resort painstakingly built and repeatedly expanded under the personal supervision of five emperors of the Qing Dynasty.
Initial construction began in 1707, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor 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 the Yongzheng emperor, 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 the Qianlong emperor’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 50. By the middle of the 19th century, the Imperial Gardens had undergone expansion in one form or another for over 150 years.
Yuanmingyuan is composed of three comparatively independent but interconnected gardens: Yuanmingyuan, Changchunyuan (Garden of Eternal Spring), and Qichunyuan (Garden of Blossoming Spring). Covering an area of about 350 hectares, Yuanmingyuan was a vast landscaped garden at once grand in scale and enchanting in scenery. Its green hills and exquisite architecture were laid out with picturesque appeal, and decorated with thriving trees and beautiful flowers. As to close sights, the rolling hills and maze of streams and lakes divided the whole garden into more than 100 scenes, their captivating beauty enhanced by a host of pavilions, corridors, islands, and bridges. About 40 percent of the garden was covered by rivers and lakes, connected into an integral system by winding streams and dotted with more than 250 hills and rock formations. The water’s constant murmur rendered life and soul to the hills and rocks. And together they transformed the entire complex into a landscaping and horticultural miracle which stood comparison with the beauty of the natural scenery south of the Yangtze River.
Yuanmingyuan was not only famed for its beauty. It was also an imperial museum with a vast collection of cultural treasures. The French writer Victor Hugo once remarked, “With all its treasures, Notre Dame in Paris is no match for Yuanmingyuan, that enormous and magnificent museum in the East.” Furniture made of red sandalwood decorated the numerous halls in which countless rare cultural relics were on display. As one of the four most famous imperial libraries, the Wenyuan Hall (Hall of Literary Profundity) in the garden originally housed such precious ancient books as The Complete Library of Four Branches of Books (《四库全书》), Gems of the Complete Library of Four Branches of Books (《四库全书荟要》), and The Completed Collection of Graphs and Writings of Ancient and Modern Times (《古今图书集成》).
Alas, the skill and sophistication of the builders of this historic “Garden of Gardens,” and the cultural treasures contained within it, failed to escape the destruction inflicted on China by the Western powers. In October 1860, the Anglo-French forces sacked and looted Yuanmingyuan and burned it to the ground. From then on, the garden suffered continual damage at the hands of the warlords, bandits, and the Eight-Power Allied Forces. * Its former beauty and glory no more, the entire garden lay in clusters of ruins and debris. In hushed silence it bore witness to the atrocities of the Western powers and the corruption and incompetence of the Qing rulers, and admonished the Chinese people never to forget the tragedy.
The wheels of history, however, move on inexorably. Yuanmingyuan has since undergone great changes, after the birth of the People’s Republic. The Chinese government has attached great importance to the preservation of the ruins. The district and municipal governments have placed Yuanmingyuan on a list of key cultural sites under special protection. Residential land has been requisitioned, and massive reforestation efforts have been carried out. Decades of painstaking work has turned half of the garden into green groves teeming with hundreds of thousands of trees. Most of the building foundations have been unearthed, and the remains of over a dozen scenic rock formations duly preserved. The existing carved marble masonry of the European Palaces has been pieced together to become a tourist attraction in its own right.
A short journey back in history is revealing. To facilitate such a journey, the local government of Haidian District set up an administrative office for Yuanmingyuan in November 1976, which has made remarkable progress in protecting the ruins and reforesting the area. The framework of the European Palaces has been partly restored. Roads and basic facilities for the eastern half of the garden have been built and gradually improved. As a result, the number of tourists attracted to the site is increasing annually.
In November 1979, the Yuanmingyuan History Exhibition Center was formally inaugurated, to the delight of visitors from at home and abroad. By 1997 the center had received more than 9.8 million visitors.
On October 18, 1980, at a conference marking the 120th anniversary of the destruction of the old imperial summer palace, Soong Ching Ling, Shen Yanbing, Xi Zhongxun and over 100 other state leaders and prominent personages initiated a proposal on the preservation, restoration, and utilization of Yuanmingyuan. The Institute for the Study of Yuanmingyuan was established on the same day, thereby kindling extensive public interest in the study and preservation of this “Garden of Gardens.”
A garden destroyed during a nation’s most traumatic years is bound to be revived in times of prosperity. In 1983 the State Council endorsed the General Plan for the Construction of Beijing. This document defined the ways and means for the development of Yuanmingyuan as a historic park. Yet, due to events in recent history, more than 2,000 mu (1 mu=1/15 hectare) of land in the park had been converted into farmland. To find a way out for the farmers, therefore, became a difficult problem. In September 1984 this problem was solved. At the suggestion of Zhang Huanwu, Du Hui, Shi Dingchao and other leaders of the Haidian District, and with the support of the Institute for the Study of Yuanmingyuan and people from all walks of life, the Administrative Office launched a project to rally the efforts of the farmers to develop the park collectively. This marked another major step for the reconstruction of Yuanmingyuan.
The guiding principle for the park’s development is to transform the lakes and streams and plant trees on a large scale, while accentuating the importance of the historical ruins as a prominent feature of Yuanmingyuan. Accordingly, park workers and staff members have spared no efforts to preserve the sights, reconstruct the buildings, and restore the water system, hills, and rock gardens. Their efforts made it possible for the Yuanmingyuan Park to be opened to the public on a trial basis in June 1988. In the same year, the park was designated by the State Council as a key cultural site at the national level.
To highlight the characteristics of the ruins, the Administrative Office has put them under meticulous care during the course of restoration. They have cleared certain sites, and erected description boards for the benefit of visitors. Over the past decade, they have repaired bridges, paved roads, cleared lakes, and reforested the hills. Furthermore, they have built many service facilities and purchased more than 300 pleasure-boats to ply the serene waters of the garden. Thus visitors from all over the world can now capture some of the original beauty of this summer resort, and appreciate the glamour of more than a dozen replicas of ancient buildings, under the cooling shade of glorious trees. The district and municipal authorities and the former State Education Commission also designated Yuanmingyuan as a national education base.
The eastern half of the garden has gradually taken shape, where a number of scenic areas are open to tourists, such as the fuhai Scenic Area, the eastern part of Qichunyuan, and the European Palaces of Changchunyuan, which have regained their past glory with green hills and blue water enhanced by luxuriant trees and fragrant flowers, The park has also become the venue for a series of annual festivals. Including the Spring Outing Festival, the Lotus Flower Festival, and the Chrysanthemum Festival.
Having been open to the public for a decade. Yuanmingyuan still has a long way to go to become a full-fledged park of historic ruins. For example, its western part is crying for development , and more funds are needed for this, as well as for many other purposes. The Administrative Office is making every effort to tackle these difficulties so that they can complete the restoration of the park in the early 21th century.