The Summer Palace of Yuanming Yuan is one of the most famous imperial parks worldwide. This vast complex of gardens, lakes, pavilions, temples, and hills is located only 10 kilometers from the walls of Beijing in Haidian, in the vicinity of the prestigious Peking and Qinghua universities.
A famous imperial park outside of Beijing, Yuanming Yuan is known for its expansive compound of gardens, lakes, and temples. While once a truly beautiful Summer Palace for the Qing court, damages incurred during the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution have left much of Yuanming Yuan in ruins.
Thanks to its well-documented and tragic history, the Summer Palace Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) is one of the most famous imperial parks worldwide. This vast complex of gardens, lakes, pavilions, temples, and hills is located only 10 kilometers from the walls of Beijing in Haidian, in the vicinity of the prestigious Peking and Qinghua universities. Since this was the preferred residence of five Qing emperors, Chinese historians have viewed the founding, enlargement, and destruction of the palatial complex as an illustration of the growth, extravagance, and decline of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).
The name “Summer Palace” is misleading because until 1820 the Qing court spent most of the summer away from Beijing, in the cooler hills of Chengde. Yuanming Yuan became known in Europe in 1743 when a Jesuit missionary employed at Qianlong’s court, the painter Jean-Denis Attiret, mailed an account of his visit in a letter to his correspondent in Paris. His description of the beauty of Chinese items and themes in the gardens helped change the history of landscape design and the design of contemporary European gardens. Parks in the Yuanming Yuan complex include the parks of the Kangxi emperor (1654–1722) and the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799), and Yihe Yuan (Garden of Concord and Peace), renamed by the Cixi dowager empress (1835–1908) in 1888. Xiyang Lou is a European baroque-style section that Qianlong commissioned in the northeast corner of his residence. Cixi decided to restore the western park of the Summer Palace after a French-British military expedition plundered and burnt to the ground the entire complex during the Second Opium War (1856–1960). Within its present limits, Cixi’s Yihe Yuan consists of Kunming Lake and Wanshou Hill, whose massive Buddhist temple dominates the site.
The Summer Palace was further damaged during the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Kangxi and Qianlong’s gardens in Yuanming Yuan have not been rebuilt because the Chinese government wants to preserve the site as a symbol of the depredations of foreign imperialism and as a reminder of the humiliations the Qing monarchs brought to China. The Summer Palace is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List, and the melancholic ruins and ponds of Yuanming Yuan and the placid waters of Kunming Lake in Yihe Yuan attract today nearly as many domestic and foreign tourists as the Forbidden City does.
Source: Forêt, Philippe. (2009). Yuanming Yuan, Ruins of. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2605–2606. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.
Detail of the Summer Palace of Yuanming Yuan.
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