Just across from the Western gate of Tsinghua University, one of China’s proudest institutions, sits a quiet reminder of foreign aggression on China and past humiliation — Yuanmingyuan Park (圆明园遗址), or the Old Summer Palace.
The Qing Dynasty royal family lived and handled government affairs from Yuanmingyuan for more than 100 years, using the Forbidden City for ceremonial purposes. But, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops stormed into Beijing, destroying the buildings and plundering their valuable treasures. The devastation left only a few token Chinese structures intact, but even those were later burned down during the Boxer Rebellion. The barbaric destruction by foreigners inflicted more than enough destruction, and things went downhill from there — the land was abandoned by the end of the Qing Dynasty, and even, for a period of time, used by local farmers for agricultural land. Fortunately, the Chinese governmental finally reclaimed the place in the 1980s as a historical site, and visitors have trickled in ever since.
A odd hush hangs over today’s Yuanmingyuan Park, the kind of foreboding or disarming quiet that precedes tragedy. If you enter the gate closest to Tsinghua’s West gate, you’ll meander through placid landscapes — lakes blanketed with the emerald green lotus leaves, stone bridges that straddle finely manicured shores, pavilions painted in scarlet and royal blue, pines that stand like sentinels by the lake, and walls of evergreen hedges that divide the park. But keep trudging North and eventually, you’ll discover the hidden scene of the crime — the Xiyang Lou (西洋楼) or Western Mansions. (Ironically, the Westerners helped build these works of art — including Jesuits who resided in the Qing Dynasty courts — only to have other Westerners destroy them.)
Broken marble slabs, fragments of baroque facades and fountains, crumbling columns that balance nothing but the air above them — these piles of ruin stand in the park like gravestones, telling us that here once lay monuments of beauty and grace, of a dynasty that would eventually crumble along with them. It’s not uplifting, but nor should it be — this is as much as stroll through history as a cruel reminder of the senseless destruction by European imperial powers.
Still, this architectural mausoleum offers a hint or two at the joy and leisure of life in the Western Mansions — for example, the Huanghuazhen labyrinth, restored by the Chinese government. You can still run through the maze, stumbling through all of fun (or failure) of the dead-ends and false turns, until you reach the European-style stone pavilion at the center, where you can then see the maze for yourself (and be amused by the next person making the same wrong turns and stumbles you did).
But unlike a maze, with history, you cannot walk backwards and turn a wrong step into something right again. The destruction of Yuanmingyuan Park was one of many egregious wrong turns foreigners made in their relationship with China — but one worth remembering, so we’ll never make that turn again.
When to visit
Yuanmingyuan Park (圆明园遗址, (010) 6262 8501, admission 15 RMB, open 7am-7pm daily) is best visited in the Spring, Summer or Autumn. And don’t forget to pack those walking shoes — the entire area is five times the size of the Forbidden City (or eight times the size of Vatican).
Getting there (in Beijing)
By Bus: Take minibus No. 375 from Xizhimen subway station.
Or, take a taxi. 😉
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.