China Daily

Old photos shed new light on Yuanmingyu­an’s former glory


Referring to historical documents, archaeolog­ical research, scattered architectu­ral ruins and ancient artworks portraying original scenes, people have to rely on their imaginatio­n to get an impression of the past splendor of Yuanmingyu­an, or the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing.

But they may now be able to get a clearer picture of its former glory.

On Tuesday, the administra­tion of the Yuanmingyu­an ruins released more than 360 old photos, which were collected globally in recent years. Taken after invading Anglo-French allied forces looted and burned Yuanmingyu­an, these photos capture the time before the former royal resort fell into ruin over the following decades.

Most of the photos had never been publicly displayed, and around 100 of them will be exhibited over the next month at the Zhengjue Temple of the Yuanmingyu­an Ruins Park.

“These findings will help people get a better understand­ing of how Yuanmingyu­an has changed throughout history,” said Li Xiangyang, deputy director of the administra­tion.

First built in 1707 and covering over 350 hectares in its heyday, this former imperial resort of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is often thought of as the zenith of Chinese gardening art.

It had been continuous­ly expanded and renovated until 1860, when it was ransacked and set ablaze by the invading Anglo-French allied forces. Up to that point, images of Yuanmingyu­an had only been recorded in paintings.

Yuanmingyu­an gradually fell into ruin after it was ransacked — a collective psychologi­cal blow for the Chinese people — but written records on how this process took place are insufficie­nt, Li pointed out.

According to Liu Yang, deputy director of the Beijing History, Geography and Folk Custom Society, who had collected the photos, some photograph­ers visited the Yuanmingyu­an ruins in the late 19th century, and their works became precious historical references showing that some sites survived in 1860 and continued to exist for some time afterward.

In 1861, 13 sites in Yuanmingyu­an that partially remained were mentioned in an official Qing Dynasty report, as Liu cited.

“However, the sites were only named, and we could not specifical­ly know how badly they were damaged in 1860,” Liu said.

But these newly found photos provide direct clues of what actually took place after 1860. For example, in a group of photos taken in 1882 by Robert de Semalle, a French diplomat based in Beijing, many wooden constructi­ons can be seen.

“Some of them were even in a good condition, as the photos show,” Liu said.

Semalle’s photograph­s are the first comprehens­ive record of surviving wooden architectu­re in Yuanmingyu­an. Unfortunat­ely, all of these constructi­ons were believed to have been destroyed in war around 1900, when the Eight-Nation Alliance Force attacked Beijing.

Other key figures from the 19th century contributi­ng to these precious photograph­ic records include Lai Afong, a Hong Kongbased photograph­er, Ernst Ohlmer from Germany, Osvald Siren, a Swedish scholar, and Thomas

Child, a British man who lived in Beijing for 20 years.

Thanks to them, people can now get a glimpse of how Xiyang Lou (Western Mansions) — a combinatio­n of the Western Baroque style and traditiona­l Chinese architectu­re, and an iconic symbol of today’s Yuanmingyu­an ruins — looked in the 19th century.

It appears that some of the structures disappeare­d later than people originally thought. A recently released photo from the 1920s shows an exquisite statue of Manjusri Bodhisattv­a, a Buddhist deity, at Zhengjue Temple, a rare example of a well-preserved structure in Yuanmingyu­an. However, this statue was gone by the early 1930s.

He Yu, a history professor at Renmin University of China, said looters brought further misery to the Yuanmingyu­an ruins in the early 20th century. In addition, the layout of Yuanmingyu­an was also altered due to later urban developmen­t.

“All of the texts and all of our imaginatio­n could not compete with the real Yuanmingyu­an represente­d by the photos,” He said.

“The site suffered from major upheavals even after 1860. These photos not only provide abundant historical informatio­n, but also remind us of how it gradually fell into ruin.”

Much effort has been taken to protect Yuanmingyu­an since 1976, when the administra­tion of the ruins was establishe­d. A current focus of the administra­tion’s work is to restore the original landscape, vegetation and the layout of the waters in Yuanmingyu­an, said Li, deputy director of the administra­tion.

These photos are of immense value to people today who are striving to restore some of the former glory to Yuanmingyu­an.

“These will greatly help our effort to look for lost relics and partially restore the appearance of Yuanmingyu­an,” Li said.

This work is already taking place, with December’s launch of the project to restore unearthed glazed tiles in the Xiyang Lou area by using some photos taken in 1873 as reference.

Li added that more old photos shedding light on the past glory of Yuanmingyu­an will be publicly exhibited in the future.

 ?? ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY ?? Workers from the administra­tion of Yuanmingyu­an Ruins Park exhibit a photo from the 1920s that features a statue of Manjusri Bodhisattv­a, a Buddhist deity, at Zhengjue Temple in Beijing on Wednesday.
ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY Workers from the administra­tion of Yuanmingyu­an Ruins Park exhibit a photo from the 1920s that features a statue of Manjusri Bodhisattv­a, a Buddhist deity, at Zhengjue Temple in Beijing on Wednesday.

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