Jade Terrace of Paradise Island (Pengdao yaotai)
Jade Terrace of Paradise Island (Pengdao yaotai) from Forty Views of the Old Palace by Tang Dai, Sheng Yuan / Courtesy of gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France

The Old Summer Palace and the Spiritual World in the Imperial Gardens

The Chinese classical garden is a material and spiritual complex that not only embodies material elements—superb skills of architecture, nature, and plant landscape—but also contains the intangible elements of gardening design, gardening techniques, art, and others. It can be said that it is the mutual promotion and infiltration between the two kinds of elements that make the brilliant artistic achievements of Chinese classical garden.

The imperial garden was one of the most important types in Chinese gardening history. The imperial garden often reflects the rise and fall of the times and the highest level of landscape art. As the Qing Dynasty’s most important imperial garden, the Old Summer Palace was a synthesizer of thousands of years of gardening tradition and the main carrier of Qing Dynasty palace culture and the locality of many historical events. Taking five emperors more than 150 years to construct, the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by the Anglo-French Allied Force in 1860 during the Second Opium War. It then experienced many catastrophes until it was eventually reduced to ruins, a great tragedy in modern Chinese history. Today, the Old Summer Palace is little more than a physiognomy framework and a few building components, but through historical documents, we can see the Old Summer Palace and its exceedingly rich intangible culture.

Meaningful Design Intention

The Old Summer Palace consisted of three gardens—Yuanming, Changchun, and Qiyun—that were built in succession and were closely dependent. Built on an artificial landscape of 3.5 square kilometers, the gardens were densely covered with a river network and continuous mountains. There were more than 150 thematic scenic areas representing politics, sacrifice, agriculture, and other aspects of life that reflected strong complexity and inclusiveness, which was the intention of the Qing emperors when planning and constructing the Old Summer Palace— that is, it was built to epitomize the empire. The ideological and cultural connotation embodied by the themed gardens is an important part of intangible culture at the Old Summer Palace.

Theme Planning that Inherited the Past and Opened the Future

The Qing emperors lived in the Old Summer Palace most of the year. Their spiritual life took place in the various elaborately constructed garden scenes, which also promoted the emergence of artworks in literature, painting, calligraphy, and handicrafts. The names, couplets, plaque, poetry of the emperors as well as the palace paintings and cultural relics are extremely valuable in material and spiritual wealth

Among the themes expressed in these landscapes, most followed ancient gardening traditions. Some of these are listed below.

  • Immortal Abode on Penglai Island and other landscapes related to immortality symbolized three islands inhabited by the gods of the East China Sea.
  • Forever Blessed by the Kindness of Ancestors and other landscapes with religious sacrifices were expressed through structured temple garden
  • Spring Scenery of Wuling and other landscapes with literary allusions simulated the ancient scholars’ desired realm by matching the landscape and plants
  • Apricot’s Spring Pavilion and other landscapes related to pastoral culture expressed the emperor’s emphasis on agriculture and longing for pastoral life.
  • Trader’s Street represented the civil culture and entertainment.

Other landscape themes enriched and expanded traditional gardening themes by using distinctive national and era characteristics. Many of these have had far-reaching effects. Some of these themes were as follows.

  • Universal Peace of All Space had profound political meaning by combining 卍-shaped building with the landscape
  • High Mountains and Long Rivers reflected the cultural customs of the nomadic people and was created with the political intention of offering conciliation to minorities.
  • Ten Views of the West Lake, Lion Grove, and other landscapes imitated famous scenic spots and gardens in regions south of the Yangtze River and signified the Manchu rulers’ appreciation for and assimilation to Han culture, an important cultural phenomenon in history
  • Hall of National Peace, Grand Fountain, and other Western themed landscapes reflected the emperor’s curiosity about European technology and art and is an example of Chinese and Western cultural exchange in eighteenth century.

The rich cultural connotation, multiple artistic expressions and techniques, and its large scale were unique to imperial gardens of ancient China. Unfortunately, the great gardens have not been preserved so far. The dilapidated walls and ruins are all that remain, but the intangible culture left by the Old Summer Palace is still so splendid and moving that many people yearn for it. It follows that in addition to exploring the important issue of ruins protection and reconstruction, we should pay more attention to how to inherit and promote the intangible culture of the Old Summer Palace, so that our descendants can also enter its spiritual world.

 

Zhu Qiang (Postgraduate Student, Beijing Forestry University)
Li Xiong (Professor, Beijing Forestry University)

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