To the northeast of the Summer Palace, the remains of Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, stand as a dark reminder of the tumultuous two years of the Second Opium War (1858-60). Built with both Eastern and Western influences, it is mostly Baroque-style Italian and French masonry that scatters the ruins today. Head on over to enjoy some sunshine, paddle around in a boat, and see what happened when a bunch of angry white guys got their feelings hurt when the Chinese didn’t want their opium anymore. Many locals like to take advantage of the park for picnics, an excellent idea. Remember, going early is a good way to beat the crowds – the busiest day ever tipped the scales with 70,000 tourists.
Construction of the Old Summer Palace began in 1707, and the site endured many years of expansion and restoration by the time of its last maintenance during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795). Originally intended as a “small” gift for the future Yongzheng Emperor (whose plush life included residence at the Lama Temple; pg 116), the palace was later retrofitted with European architectural styling during Qianlong’s time due to the emperor’s love affair with European palace and fountain designs. Qianlong commissioned such Western contemporaries as the Jesuit missionaries Guiseppe Castiglione, from Genoa, and French-born Michael Benoît. The latter is responsible for a water clock at Yuanmingyuan that combines Chinese philosophical tradition and European architecture.
The irony of Benoît’s symbiotic creation, and truly that of much of the palace, was illustrated tragically during the Second Opium War. China’s vast overestimation of its power turned titanic when the court attempted to expel the excess of exploitative foreign merchants who were shamelessly cashing in on the populace’s opium addiction (largely instigated by the merchants). The Europeans saw the imperial court as xenophobic, and supposedly in the interest of “sparing the common people,” the Old Imperial Palace was indiscriminately burned and looted. The traditional wooden buildings of the palace were utterly destroyed, and the remaining European stone structures have slowly dissolved over time from lack of restoration funds and local peasants plucking the stone to build homes.
The once exclusive playground for emperors and royalty is now a public park, visited and picnicked by locals in need of a day out. It is a popular, albeit less known, destination for tourists as well, who often come for a paddle on Fuhai Lake (Fú Hǎi 福海). As with Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace, Fu Hai offers winter ice skating and summer water sports. To the east, in the Palace Buildings Scenic Area ( Xīyánglóu Jǐngqū 西洋楼景区), the popular Eternal Spring Garden (Chángchūn Yuán 长春园) is scattered with the beautiful but melancholic remnants of the temple buildings (now essentially a rock garden of crumbling, post-Renaissance European marble masonry). Here you can find the work of Giuseppe Castiglione and Michael Benoît.
Better preserved artifacts can be found at the Great Fountain Ruins ( Dàshuǐfǎ Yízhǐ 大水法遗址) from 1759, and the Guānshuǐfǎ (观水法) at its opposite, sporting European carvings of guns, swords, military emblems and other pictorial saber rattling. From there, swing west to the Hǎiyàntáng (海晏堂) Reservoir and catch the water clock, designed in part by Benoît. It was previously characterized by 12 bronze humanoids crowned with animal heads that spat water in a 12-hour sequence. The heads have now been picked and looted, and Beijing is attempting to retrieve them from their current foreign homes. Recently, four have been secured and can be seen at the Poly Art Museum ( Bǎolì Yìshù Bówùguǎn 保利艺术博物馆; 9/F New Poly Plaza, 1 Chaoyangmen Beidajie – 朝阳门北大街1号新保利大厦9层; phone: 6500 8117; website: www.polyculture.com.cn). The Garden of Yellow Flowers (Huánghuā Zhèn 黄花阵), an adept rendition of a flower maze, is also in the area.