Should Yuanmingyuan be rebuilt?
On October 2004, more than 20 Chinese experts gathered in Beijing to discuss the reconstruction of Yuanmingyuan (imperial garden in the northwest of Beijing, built from 1709 onwards and burned down by the British and French aggressor troops in 1860).
Whether parts of the ruined historic site should be rebuilt or not remains a much-debated topic.
Located in the northern part of Haidian District in Beijing, Yuanmingyuan also served as an imperial summer resort, and was repeatedly expanded under the personal supervision of five emperors of the Qing Dynasty.
It had a vast landscaped garden, exquisite architecture and also a museum of cultural and historical treasures. The Wenyuan Hall on the grounds was one of the four most famous imperial libraries. Yuanmingyuan was extolled as the "Versailles of the East" in its heyday.
In October 1860, the Anglo-French forces sacked and looted Yuanmingyuan and burned it to the ground. From then on, the park suffered continual damage at the hands of the Eight-Power Allied Forces (composed of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Japan, Italy and Austria), warlords, bandits, and the entire site has since been in ruins, though it receives numerous tourists from all over the world.
Since the founding of People's Republic of China, the government has attached great importance to the preservation of the ruins, listing it as a key cultural site needing special protection.
In recent years, nationwide debate has been stirred over calls to rebuild some parts of Yuanmingyuan. Many readers wrote to Beijing Review, sharing their opinions on this issue.
Some believe the parts of the park should be restored according to the original design. Others argue that rebuilding may destroy the integrity of the park and distort the history of the destructive Western allied forces.
No Need to Rebuild
Ye Yanfang (researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences): I have always held that the Yuanmingyuan ruins are the most concrete evidence of Western atrocities and should be reserved as the scene of a crime. The lonely, desolated site is a silent accusation of the aggressive acts of foreign invaders, serving as an ideal place for ¡°patriotic education.¡± In this regard, no other imperial park can compare.
A rational amount of revamping work is necessary. But I oppose making a "fake antique" on the ruins, which may destroy the natural beauty of the park. Viewed from the perspective of aesthetics, the value and beauty of cultural heritage lie in originality. The universal recognized revamping standard is to rehabilitate the antique as an antique. But we tend to rebuild it as a new one, which destroys the value of our cultural heritage.
The nature of Yuanmingyuan, as a historic site, was determined in laws and regulations issued in 1983 and 2002. The effort to rehabilitate one-tenth of the whole park is inconsistent with the spirit of the historic site. One-tenth is small in proportion, but the absolute quantity is large. If imitated splendid buildings scatter parts of Yuanmingyuan, how can people witness the heaviness of history?
From the perspective of function, certain buildings may be built on a vacant lot in the park, for example, for an exhibition hall to display the model of Yuanmingyuan, an art gallery of works that survived the looting, or some office buildings and tourist resting places. But the architectural style of the new construction must be distinct from the ancient buildings, and should adopt a modern approach.
Currently, the Yuanmingyuan issue focuses on the ground construction. I suggest the responsible government department put aside the dispute and suspend the rehabilitation effort. The government should pay more attention to other non-disputed protection, for example, continue to excavate major sites and clear the dried lakebeds. In terms of clearing the lakebeds, controversy still exists. Some propose to fill them with water once again, but I believe we only have to clear the original venation. To preserve the ruins of Yuanmingyuan is to retain the truth of history, which is paramount to the protection of Yuanmingyuan.
Yang Xiaochuan (an employee with Huachuan Industry Co. Ltd. in Chengdu): I would like to say that the rehabilitation work is completely unnecessary in the next 50 to 100 years. As is known, the scale of Yuanmingyuan, as an imperial park, is impressive and immense. It would be hard to design and rehabilitate it to its original state. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to guarantee the sufficient water source for the three lakes in the park.
These are just technical aspects of rebuilding Yuanmingyuan. On the other hand, because of its immense size and scale, the rehabilitation work will require up to 100 billion yuan ($12.08 billion) in funds. Rather than throw all the money into the rehabilitation of Yuanmingyuan, it is more rational to build other projects such as power-generating facilities to ease the winter electricity crunch in major cities.
I cannot help but wonder what the function of a new Yuanmingyuan would be. Given the enormous cost, it would be a huge loss of money if the new Yuanmingyuan was just for tourism. Without rehabilitation, Yuanmingyuan displays explicitly the crimes committed by the Western allied forces. As time goes by the new Yuanmingyuan may obliterate the painful history in the minds of Chinese people.
For one thing, rehabilitation cannot show off the past glory of China. For another, it has no real benefits. It would be a total waste of energy and money. I have to stress that if anyone tries to invest and rebuild Yuanmingyuan, the government should stop him/her right away. We have to protect the historic site.
Chris Robyn (marketing manager of Cypress Book Co.): In August 2004, I visited the Yuanmingyuan park for the first time. I was awed by the sheer size and scope of the park as a whole, which were larger and more intricate than anything I had imagined. For most visitors, to see the extent of the lakes, trees, glades, and paths, offers another astounding glimpse into the splendors of China¡¯s history.
But, as most people know, there is another, darker historical aspect to Yuanmingyuan. When I arrived at the site of the famous ruins I overheard a Chinese tour guide tell her group why so few Westerners visit the park. She said it was because Westerners thought it inappropriate. While there was a certain amount of ambiguity in the comment, her words nevertheless captured perfectly the stigma and shame of foreign conquest and humiliation which is inseparable from China¡¯s modern history.
Because the park is so large, some will argue that rebuilding it will make it more attractive to tourists. But adding new buildings will offer nothing of historical value. Rather than turn the park into another large tourist attraction, Yuanmingyuan should be allowed to retain its exquisite beauty, while preserving for future generations of visitors the profound historical lessons that should be emphasized and not forgotten or cast aside for the sake of tourism revenue.
There is a supreme sense of irony about Yuanmingyuan. On the one hand, it truly represented a meeting of Chinese and Western cultures. The famed Jesuit artist Giuseppe Castiglione designed many of the Western-style buildings. Yet, sadly, these same buildings were the ones razed by Western troops. I believe that Yuanmingyuan offers profound lessons in cross-cultural understanding and appreciation in spite of the horrors of war and conflict it has come to represent.
The coming years will see a great influx of people arriving in Beijing. The Chinese visitors to Yuanmingyuan should not seethe with rage, nor should the Western visitors run and hide in shame from the past. I believe that all visitors to Yuanmingyuan, be they from China or other countries, can learn an important lesson about history and culture. If the park were rebuilt such lessons would be greatly diminished if not lost entirely.
Restoration Can Also Teach a Lesson
Luo Zhewen (head of Ancient Architecture Expert Group under the State Administration of Cultural Heritage): Yuanmingyuan has become complete ruins in effect. Nothing left except parts of the Western-style buildings. The aim to rebuild parts of the ancient scenery according to its original design is to show the sharp contrast between the previously splendid garden and its present condition. When the beauty of the park awes people, they may at the same time grieve for the destruction imposed on the garden by Western powers.
Wang Daocheng (professor of Renmin University of China): I have been studying the Yuanmingyuan issue since the 1970s. I suggest restoring some distinctive sceneries of the park while protecting the ruins of Western-style buildings through meticulous research, design and construction.
The reason why I suggest revamping the ancient-style gardens that covered 98 percent of Yuanmingyuan is because I have never believed the point of view that to preserve the ¡°humiliation ground¡± is to preserve the memory of history. We have to face a reality, which is, the present Yuanmingyuan is not the one burnt down by Anglo-French troops in 1860.
According to some historical records, 16 important sceneries survived the scourge of looting in 1860. They were well protected during the period of the Qing Dynasty. Two significant historical periods contributed to the destruction of Yuanmingyuan. One was the "Republic of China" era when frequent civil wars and disasters crept into the garden and made it into ruins. The remaining cultural relic and site were looted once again by vandals.
The other was the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) period when the administration of Yuanmingyuan fell into complete chaos. Document show that 800 meters of the garden wall was once knocked down, 1,000 trees were cut down and numerous stones were carried away by dozens of trucks during that period.
I believe the rebuilding of Yuanmingyuan will not diminish its symbolic meaning for the Chinese people. In terms of appropriate protection, utilization and reconstruction of Yuanmingyuan, I strongly recommend improving its actual conditions in the present day, while not from the concept of "cultural relic park."
The White House of the United States was also once burnt by the British. I propose to retain the ruins of Western-style buildings covering eight hectares while rebuilding other places.
Additionally, with the advanced architectural technology and skills and with the guidance of historical archives describing Yuanmingyuan, we have the ability to rebuild the gorgeous gardens.
Wang Jie (an English major in Sichuan Normal University): In my opinion, Yuanmingyuan should be rebuilt. Rebuilding the park does not mean forgetting the humiliating past; rather, the effort would focus on the future development of Chinese nation. China is no longer the helpless weak country that was trampled and manipulated by Western powers.
China has risen from sheer poverty and incompetence, gaining a foothold in the international arena. Therefore, the country bears the responsibility to show the world that it has already grown independent and strong. The nation should not be obsessed with past grief, nor should it recollect the ruins and debris in the name of admonishment.
We cannot rewrite the history, but we have the boundless ability to create a much better society in the future. We should leave the past to the museums and rebuild the imperial gardens in an effort to recur the profound culture of Chinese nation.