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

China Scenic - - SPECIAL REPORT - By Ni Ruifeng Il­lus­tra­tions by Bei­jing Ts­inghua Her­itage In­sti­tute for Dig­i­ti­za­tion (THID)

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.

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