The Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as the "Gardens of Perfect Clarity" (Yuánmíng Yuán, 圆明园), served as a retreat for the imperial Qing court before it was looted and leveled in 1860 during the second Opium War by British and French troops under the command of James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, in retaliation for the torture and killing of troops sent to negotiate with the Qing government.
Today it is a haunting but melancholy place, with the ruins only hinting at what was once a resplendent complex of fountains, gardens and a unique blend of Chinese and European architecture, much of it designed by Jesuits employed by Emperor Qianlong.
The original imperial retreat, initiated in the early 1700s under Emperor Kangxi, consisted of three gardens: Yuanming Yuan, the Garden of Eternal Spring (Chángchūn Yuán, 长春园) and the 10,000 Springs Garden (Wànchūn Yuán, 万春园), covering some 350 hectares (865 acres). The southern part of Yuanming Yuan was where the emperor dealt with official business. In other areas, imitations of famed scenic spots from throughout China and the West once stood.
Today, it's difficult to imagine the site as it was before it fell victim to history. Nonetheless, with a little imagination one can still picture the emperor atop a hill gazing down at the replica of Venice created for his pleasure. If you want to see the treasures and art once housed in the Old Summer Palace, you'll have to spend a lot of time touring museums and galleries around the world, though recently wealthy Chinese and Taiwanese institutions and individuals—including Macau casino kingpin Stanley Ho—have begun purchasing looted items for return to the Motherland.
Beijing guide | Beijing attractions | Beijing flights
Beijing tours & activities | Beijing on the China Travel Blog
Only a 70 km (44 mi) drive from Beijing, Badaling (Bādálǐng, 八达岭) is the most visited section of the Great Wall. Constructed during the Ming Dynasty, Badaling..
Fragrant Hills Park (Xiāngshān Gōngyuán, 香山公园) is located some 20 km (12 mi) northwest of Beijing, not far from the Summer Palace. Though the name..
Home to the biggest bell in China, the Great Bell Temple (Dàzhōng Sì, 大钟寺) was built in 1733 during the Qing Dynasty. The bell itself, known as..
The Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán, 天坛), completed in 1420 during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle, was the most sacred space in which the..