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The Old Summer Palace - “the Versailles of the East”

old summer palaceOld Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan, used to be the most splendid royal garden, reputed as being the "Garden of Gardens". Victor Hugo once described it as: “In a corner of the world, it is one of the wonders of the world. The miracle called the Old Summer Palace.” However, a fire destroyed the grand garden, taking away its glory and only leaving behind the ruins and history.

The Old Summer Palace Facts

  • Chinese: 圆明园 Yuánmíngyuán /ywhen-ming-ywhen/ ’Round Bright Garden’
  • Location: Haidian District, Beijing; 15 kilometers northwest from the city center
  • Function: a summer resort and a place for dealing with state affairs for emperors in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
  • Built: 1709
  • Area: 350 ha (860 ac)
  • Time needed: 2–3 hours
  • Suited to: history lovers

History of the Old Summer Palace

old summer palace

For Chinese people, the Old Summer Palace is not just an attraction. Its destruction was a heart-wrenching piece of modern China’s history. From 1709 to 1860, it was the grandest imperial garden with over 1,000 palaces, 100 viewing points, and thousands of treasures, covering an area of 350 hectares. It embodied the highest level of oriental fantasy art.

The Construction - Splendid in Its Heyday

Yuanmingyuan was originally founded in the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661–1722) in 1709 as a gift to his fourth son, Emperor Yongzheng (1678–1735). After Emperor Yongzheng ascended to the throne, the Old Summer Palace continued to expand. The construction and expansion lasted for 150 years. It was extolled as the “Versailles of the East”.

It was just how you imagine a gorgeous palace to be: marbled palaces, stately temples, towers, an extensive collection of gardens, pools, and fountains plus swarms of swans, ibis, and peacocks. The whole palace was painted and decorated with gleaming marbles, precious stones, colored glazes, enamels, bronze and stone wares, statues, and sculptures. This grand palace was like “the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights” built by “architects who are poets”.

The Destruction and Looting of Yuanmingyuan in 1860 by British and French Forces

old summer palaceCrumbling marble buildings in the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace was known as the “Versailles of the East”, but its glory and magnificence ceased in 1860. During the Second Opium War, British and French troops invaded Beijing, ransacked the Old Summer Palace, and looted its treasures, which are now displayed in museums around the world.

After the looting, they set fire to the entire palace. It was said that the fire lasted for 3 days and nights. Almost all the buildings were burnt down. Only crumbling marble buildings remained. The splendor and magnificence of the Old Summer Palace disappeared in this fire.

The Destruction and Looting of Yuanmingyuan in 1900 by the Eight-Nation Alliance

In 1900, the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded and occupied Beijing. Yuanmingyuan was devastated again and the remaining treasures were looted. They destroyed buildings, sawing off pillars and reducing wooden bridges to piles, and pulled down the trees with large ropes. When they had finished, the Old Summer Palace was completely destroyed.

The Old Summer Palace’s Bronze Statues with Chinese Zodiac Heads

bronze animal statues Bronze animal statues

Twelve statues with Chinese zodiac heads and human bodies were originally on the fountain in front of the Hall of National Peace in the Western Mansions area. They were designed by Giuseppe Castiglione, who came from Italy and was a painter in the Qing Dynasty court. The 12 animals represented the 24 hours of each day. Each bronze statue took turns spraying water from its mouth every 2 hours.

In 1860, the British and French Allied forces looted the Old Summer Palace and took the 12 zodiac bronze statues from the Old Summer Palace overseas.

Now, seven bronze animal statues have come back to China. The bronze heads of an ox, tiger, monkey, pig, and horse are in a collection at Poly Art Museum. The bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat are at the National Museum of China. The bronze head of a dragon is said to be in Taiwan. The other four bronze heads of a snake, goat, rooster, and dog are still missing.

The Reconstruction

model of old summer palace Model of Old Summer Palace in the exhibition hall

After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government attached great importance to the protection of the Yuanmingyuan ruins. A park has been established on the site of the ruins. The facilities and landscaping construction in the park have been continually improved.

Although damaged, most of the building sites can be found and dozens of rockery stones are still visible. Visitors can imagine the former grandeur, and are able to learn about and remember the history through these ruins. What's more, the complete picture of the Old Summer Palace in its heyday is displayed in the exhibition hall.

Some of the reconstructed buildings and scenic spots offer a place for visitors to relax.

Layout of the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace covers an area of more than 3.5 sq km (1.3 sq mi), which is 8½ times the size of the Forbidden City.

The Old Summer Palace consists of three gardens: Yuanmingyuan, Changchunyuan (‘Forever Spring Garden’), and Qichunyuan (‘Gorgeous Spring Garden’), later called Wanchunyuan (‘Every Spring Garden’). These three gardens are what we usually collectively call Yuanmingyuan.

old summer palace The Great Fountain Ruins

Yuanmingyuan is the biggest garden with three scenic areas: the northwest area, Jiuzhou, and Fuhai Lake. Most of the attractions are in Jiuzhou (‘Nine Provinces’ 九州).

Changchunyuan has the most famous attraction, the marbled ruins of the Western Mansions (Xiyang Lou). You can see the best-preserved relics there - the Great Fountain Ruins (Dashuifa ‘Great Water Way’), which used to be a fountain that was built in 1759, and the Guanshuifa (‘Watch Water Way’), a place where emperors appreciated fountains.

Qichunyuan is the smallest garden and it was the place where concubines lived. Flower gardens and pavilions are dotted around the area.

The Old Summer Place vs. the Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace and the Summer Palace are two different gardens. They are 5 kilometers apart.

The Old Summer Palace The Summer Palace
Location 15 km northwest of Tian’anmen Adjacent, west of the Old Summer Palace
Entry fee 10 yuan 30 yuan
Features Ruins of the Old Summer Palace Representative of Chinese imperial gardens
Built 1709 1750 (rebuilt 1912)
Area 350 ha 290 ha
Current situation Mostly just relics remain Well preserved
Transport Metro Line 4 to Yuanmingyuan, and take Exit B Metro Line 4 to Beigongmen, and take Exit D

Travel Information about the Old Summer Palace

Things to Do

old summer palace Visitors can appreciate the architecture in the Old Summer Palace.
  • Learn about the history by visiting the ruins
  • Appreciate the architecture
  • Take a stroll around
  • Go sightseeing

How to Get to the Old Summer Palace

  • By metro: Take Line 4 to Yuanmingyuan (圆明园), and leave from Exit B.
  • By taxi: Show this phrase to the driver: “请带我到圆明园”, which means “Please take me to Yuanmingyuan”.
  • By sightseeing bus: Take Line 3 to Yuanmingyuan (圆明园).

Opening Hours and Fees

  • Open: May–August: 7am–7pm; April, September, and October: 7am–6pm; November–March: 7am–5:30pm (ticket sales cease 2 hours before the closing time)
  • Entry: 10 yuan
  • The Western Mansions (Xiyang Lou): 15 yuan
  • The exhibition hall portraying Yuanmingyuan in its heyday: 10 yuan

Battery Car Service

A battery car service is available for the big areas:

  • Route A: junction of the three gardens – the Western Mansions
  • Route B: junction of the three gardens – Jiuzhou
  • Route C: the Western Mansions – Jiuzhou – Zaoyuan Gate
  • Route D: junction of the three gardens – Jiuzhou – Zaoyuan Gate

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