Yuanming Yuan’s Digital Revival
Yuanming Yuan, the Old Summer Palace, is said to be a paragon of gardening as an art form; yet it is also a place of sorrow for the Chinese people—having languished, and overgrown, for more than 150 years. Through rigorous scientific research and advancem
Empty ruins, re-created as highly realistic scenes of palatial grandeur; this is the achievement of the Beijing Tsinghua Heritage Institute for Digitization’s “Re-relic” digital re-creation of the Old Summer Palace. The Re-relic program lets tourists utilize a digital platform to see the Old Summer Palace as it was a century ago. This remarkable technology was developed and produced by a team led by Professor Guo Daiheng of the Tsinghua University School of Architecture.
A Restoration in the Name of Research
The research work led by Professor Guo echoes previous debates surrounding the proposed rebuilding of the Old Summer Palace. This site is known as both a “paragon of Chinese landscape design, a Garden of Gardens” and as a point of deep sorrow for the Chinese people; these two viewpoints continue to shape popular understanding of the Old Summer Palace.
After it was looted and destroyed by invading Anglo-french armies in 1860 (during the reign of the Xianfeng Emperor), the Qing court attempted to rebuild the Old Summer Palace several times, before the project was ultimately abandoned as the empire continued its decline. As decline gave way to chaos, the famous palace gradually fell into desolation.
Beginning in 2001, having spent decades of her life devoted to the study and preservation of traditional Chinese architecture, Professor Guo set her sights on the Old Summer Palace, beginning new research while strongly disapproving ideas for largescale reconstruction of the Palace at its original location. She believes that the Old Summer Palace is no longer a simple garden; rather, it has become a point of “cultural heritage”, a vessel of historical knowledge. The calamity suffered by the Palace, reflected in its crumbling ruins, is also a part of history. Rashly reconstructing the Old Summer Palace would not only violate fundamental principles of relic preservation, it would also erase the history the ruins contain.
Fortunately, advancements in both technology and the ideals of historic preservation have allowed Professor Guo and her team to devise another option: a digital re-creation of the Old Summer Palace using the Re-relic platform. This digital version of the Palace can never be destroyed, nor will it infringe upon preservation of the original ruins.
While there is a vast amount of historical data regarding the Old Summer Palace, it’s a long journey from historical data to a fully-realized three-dimensional (3D) model. Re-creation of the Palace’s atypical architecture is especially challenging, requiring extensive analysis of the site’s composition and construction methods. Qing-era imperial architecture is traditionally thought of as rigid and unchanging, subject to a standardized form. One can thereby more-or-less extrapolate the required dimensions of an entire structure by studying something as minor as the dimensions of a pillar base. Although this method was confirmed by many existent cases, it would not
be applicable to the Old Summer Palace. Constructed under five emperors’ meticulous oversight, the Palace broke the traditional architectural mold, and contained countless examples of work by skilled artisans and craftsmen. They built opulent and grandiose structures in order to flaunt the ultimate art and aesthetics of the Qing Dynasty—a presentation of the site’s unique charm as an imperial residence.
As Director of the Beijing Tsinghua Heritage Institute for Digitization (THID), He Yan notes, “We previously liked to analyze ‘Qing Architecture’ as a monolithic concept but, in reality, this refers to a span of time covering the past 300 years, and in that time many architectural details underwent significant changes. The Old Summer Palace, which lasted through the reigns of five Qing emperors, is surely an example worth studying.”
Indeed, analysts at the Institute spend each day combing through mountains of historical material looking for connections, and accumulating as much data as possible, “like a series of pearls, each individually strung to form a necklace.” Only once the myriad elements have come together does a complete architectural model take shape.
Archaeological Rediscovering of the Old Summer Palace
Just how authentic are historic building restorations? In response to this very common question from the public, Xiao Jinliang, Deputy Director of THID replies, “When it comes to restoration work, I prefer accuracy over authenticity.” Why then, can’t the Old Summer Palace be authentically restored to its original appearance, from before it was destroyed? According to Xiao, the Palace’s lack of a clear-cut architectural standard to consult would make it impossible to assess the “authenticity” of a potential restoration. Moreover, the greatest limitation to any accurate restoration is the availability of information to consult; therefore, the greater the availability of reliable information, the greater the accuracy of the restoration. Based on this standard, Xiao divides “accuracy” into four grades, with the highest grade being “genuine structures recovered from archaeological excavations and surveys at the site, which are then rebuilt into complete structures.”
Since 2001, researcher Jin Fengyi of the Beijing Municipal Cultural Heritage Institute has led a team of
Banmu Yuan In the restored illustration, the Banmu Yuan (Half Mu Garden) is a small-sized pavilion constructed on a small opera stage. It is an indoor decoration that used outdoor architecture for reference, which formed a unique artistic effect as“a building inside a building.”
archaeologists to participate in excavations at the Old Summer Palace’s Hanjing Tang (Tripataka Hall) and Changchun Yuan (Garden of Eternal Spring), as well as surveys and investigations conducted at the Great Entryway, the Jiuzhou Qingyan (Nine Continents Clear and Calm), and 20 other points of interest.
When asked about to provide an example of a vivid memory from the ongoing archaeological excavations of the Old Summer Palace, Jin Fengyi replies, “The walls and base of the Goldfish Pond in the Tantan Dangdang (Magnanimous World) area were covered by huge slabs of granite. While excavating the area we found that the trinity mixture fill in the foundation was like concrete, shovels were no use digging through it.”
Jin maintains a very long list of the many archaeological discoveries made at the Palace, steadily filling in gaps of previously unknown knowledge; more than 170 of these discoveries were made in the period between 2001 and 2004 alone. These discoveries range from the large, such as the discovery of the Old Summer Palace’s massive mountain and water systems, to the moderately-sized, such as the detailed layout of each courtyard and specific measurements of buildings, and all the way down to small details, such as glazed roof tiles, stone and brick carvings, and even the remnants of pine and cypress root systems. All these items have undoubtedly contributed to the restoration effort.
There’s another important facet to archaeological excavation work: the site-wide topographical land survey. The land the Old Summer Palace sits on was naturally and originally flat; the hills within the palace area seem to have been artificially constructed using the soil dug up when creating the Palace’s ponds and lakes. “These man-made hills are of a limited height, usually no more than a dozen meters or so, yet they became a significant feature of the Palace’s scenery.” Yin Lina, also a Deputy Director at THID, was deeply moved as she continued to inspect the ruins, stating, “As we walked around the Old Summer Palace taking measurements and making inspections,
we would often get lost—even if we had maps. Sometimes, for example, there will be a several meters-long pathway on the map, but we wouldn’t be able to actually find it at the site. Only with experience did we eventually realize that oftentimes a small hill would be obscuring the path from view, rendering us ‘unable to see the forest through the trees’, as it were.”
As He Yan said: “The Old Summer Palace’s landscaping achievements have always been a topic of debate. People are used to comparing it to the “new” Summer Palace that is open in landscapes and is orderly cut through by a central axis, some arguing that the Old Summer Palace is too compact and chaotic. But when we take a 2D diagram and transform it into a 3D scene and put the viewer right in the middle of it, only then do they realize that the landscape bears little resemblance to the logic depicted on paper. Rather, it ingeniously makes use of variable spaces to present a welcoming atmosphere.”
This is another new knowledge to the study of the Old Summer Palace, through the process digital restoration.