Art and Culture of an Imperial Garden-Palace

Seal of the 4th Imperial Son, Prince Yong of the First Rank with dragons and cloud on knob
Set of seals of the Kangxi Emperor
Universal Peace from Spring Everlasting on the Abode of the Immortals
Plate with dragons
“Reading” from the Twelve Beauties
Hexagonal flowerpot
The Qianlong Emperor at leisure
previous arrow
next arrow

Yuan Ming Yuan

Yuan Ming Yuan was a sprawling garden paradise meticulously designed to embody imperial grandeur and natural beauty. Yuan Ming Yuan, or the Old Summer Palace, was a jewel of Chinese history. Built and continuously expanded over a century by Qing dynasty emperors, it was the most magnificent garden palace complex ever built.

The Yuan Ming Yuan – Art and Culture of an Imperial Garden-Palace exhibition at the Hong Kong Palace Museum revisits the complex reasons behind this once-magnificent garden’s rise and tragic demise.

Yuan Ming Yuan is an enduring source of fascination; through paintings, architectural details and artefacts associated with this legendary retreat, this exhibition provides insight into the life, government, leisure and ceremonies of five generations of Qing dynasty emperors.

This closer review also suggests how the construction and infamous destruction of the Old Summer Palace are inextricably linked to the ascension and ultimate failures of China’s last dynasty.

Qing dynasty

The Qing dynasty began in 1644 and ended in 1912. The Qing were a northeast Asian people – the Manchus. They conquered Beijing and overthrew the Ming dynasty, which had ruled China since 1368.

Although the Manchu were distinctly different, instead of imposing their language, political systems and culture, they adopted and adapted characteristics from the Han Chinese Ming dynasty that they favoured. They kept the good qualities from the previous dynasty and continued with aspects that benefitted them.

The empire was strong and vast during the first century and a half of Qing dynasty rule. Three great and highly capable Qing emperors presided over a period of expansion, peace and prosperity when China became wealthy and prominent.

Emperor Kangxi

Emperor Kangxi, the dynasty’s second ruler, was the first of the three great emperors. He ruled from 1662 to 1722 and had the vision and boldness to lead armies into battle to consolidate Qing rule. He governed from within the Forbidden City, built by the Ming dynasty in the capital of Beijing. 

Although the Forbidden City was the official residence for the imperial family and the centre of ceremonies, Kangxi created a garden retreat northwest of Beijing in an area with streams and lakes, which was cool and comfortable in the summer.

Garden of Perfect Brightness

In 1709, Kangxi constructed another garden estate, just north of his own, for his son Prince Yinzhen, who would succeed him to become the Yongzheng emperor, the second of the three great emperors. The retreat was given an auspicious name: yuan – round, ming – bright, and yuan – garden, which translates as the Garden of Perfect Brightness.

Emperor Yongzheng

Emperor Yongzheng ruled from 1723-1735. He was a competent and accomplished leader, and during his reign, he vastly expanded the Garden of Perfect Brightness. He made this his principal residence and became the first of five generations of emperors to live, work and hold court primarily in the garden palace.

Emperor Qianlong

The emperor Qianlong, Yongzheng’s son, ruled from 1736-1795, the third of the three great emperors. His reign was a long and golden one. He was an ardent poet, writer, art collector and passionate preserver of culture and heritage. Qianlong was scholarly, opened to new, innovative and foreign ideas and expanded the retreat extensively. He commissioned the famous water clock fountain for the garden. Mounted on two sides of a triangular basin, twelve bronze-cast sculptures, one each to represent the Chinese zodiac signs of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig spouted water, in turn, every two hours, with all spraying water in concert at noon.

Qianlong created a paradise for himself, his family and the following three successive emperors. Their stay there often made Yuan Ming Yuan the official residence centre for the imperial family and government affairs.

First and Second Opium Wars

After the reign of the three great emperors came leaders of lesser abilities. Their weakness and foreign pressures during the First and Second Opium Wars gradually diminished the power of the Qing dynasty.

The conflict with foreign powers arose due to tensions over diplomatic relations and the opium trade. By this time, the Qing dynasty was weakened and corrupt, and it was ill-prepared to defend against the technologically advanced forces of the British and French. When the invading force found out that their delegates had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed, they ordered the destruction of the Palace. In 1860, soldiers systematically looted the art treasures and then destroyed the buildings with a fire that lasted three days.

Sacking and burning of the Old Summer Palace

The sacking and burning of the Old Summer Palace remains a highly sensitive and controversial topic in China. Most of the buildings were made of wood, and these were destroyed, and only a few marble ruins remain on site, as shown in photos and videos in the exhibition. The ruin of the palace complex serves as a reminder of the country’s painful history of foreign aggression and the loss of cultural heritage. Efforts have been made to restore and preserve the site, but many artefacts and buildings are lost forever.

Although much has been lost, the Yuan Ming Yuan’s story transcends its physical destruction. It serves as a potent reminder of China’s artistic heritage, the dangers of inherited succession and the enduring fascination with a paradise lost.

Text & photos Cammy Yiu