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From East to West: The Enchanting Blend of Architectural Styles in Yuanmingyuan

Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, was 20 kilometers northwest of The Forbidden City, the ancient walled city in Beijing. It was an enormous multi-functional complex for the emperor to work and live in. Even more, it was the alternative political center of the Qing Dynasty. Construction began in 1709 and continued for more than a century and a half. The result was a vast imperial palace with gardens and ponds, totaling more than 150 complexes. In a letter condemning the British and French troops for looting and destroying the palace, the French writer Victor Hugo said The Summer Palace had been one of the wonders of the world. A Look Inside the Grounds One of the most beloved complexes was the emperor’s Tantan Dangdang, which translates

Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, was 20 kilometers northwest of The Forbidden City, the ancient walled city in Beijing. It was an enormous multi-functional complex for the emperor to work and live in. Even more, it was the alternative political center of the Qing Dynasty.

Construction began in 1709 and continued for more than a century and a half. The result was a vast imperial palace with gardens and ponds, totaling more than 150 complexes. In a letter condemning the British and French troops for looting and destroying the palace, the French writer Victor Hugo said The Summer Palace had been one of the wonders of the world.

Emperor’s Private Residence

A Look Inside the Grounds

One of the most beloved complexes was the emperor’s Tantan Dangdang, which translates to “Clear Conscience and Broad Mind.” It included a large, deep goldfish pond with an area of 1,000 square meters. According to Emperor Qianlong, the goldfish were a symbol of his people, and he would feed and observe his goldfish to show concern for his people.

Surrounding the pond was architecture that included a study, gallery, and theater. Here, Emperor Qianlong would watch opera performances after visiting his goldfish. The theater was different from our theaters today as the stage felt like a room within a room. The walls and ceilings were covered with paper painted with flourishing vines, giving the feel of an outdoor garden.

The Square Pot of Victory

Most of the buildings and gardens within the Summer Palace were simple and elegant. But there was a unique complex that stood out, The Fanghu Shengjing, also known as The Square Pot of Victory. This complex was built based on a holy and mysterious place from a Chinese legend. It included nine two-story buildings and three pavilions with beautiful flowers and trees all around.

Linking different buildings and pavilions within the Fanghu Shenjing were bridges called flying passages. There were quite a number of them throughout the complex with the purpose of creating a paradise-like image under the ideas of Buddhism and Daoism. The roofs were also unique as they were made up of glazed tiles in as many as seven different shades. This would make them shine in the stunning combination with the red wooden buildings, giving off the image of a storybook place.

The Hall of Calm Seas

If you visit the Old Summer Palace now, you’ll find the stone relics of the Haiyantang Hall, or the Hall of Calm Seas. This site consisted of a building and a reservoir, which held around 180 tons of water. Inside the building, there were two rooms for water storage equipped with a hydraulic machinery system. They were designed to ensure daily water supply.

The water from the reservoir was also used in the Zodiac Fountain at the front of the Hall of Calm Seas. It was a water clock fountain that consisted of twelve bronze Chinese zodiac statues that would spout water every two hours to tell time.


Western-Style Palaces: A Unique Blend of Architectural Influences

Among the numerous complexes within Yuanmingyuan, there were also Western-style palaces that showcased a fascinating fusion of architectural influences. These palaces, constructed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, were a testament to the Qing Dynasty’s openness to foreign cultures.

Inspired by European architectural styles, these palaces featured ornate facades, grand halls, and expansive gardens. The Western-style structures reflected a harmonious amalgamation of Chinese and Western aesthetics, incorporating elements such as columns, arches, and intricate carvings.


The grandeur of these palaces was further enhanced by their lavish interiors adorned with exquisite chandeliers, European-style furniture, and decorative artworks. Notable examples included the Hall of the Western Seas and the Hall of the Three Rare Treasures.

These Western-style palaces served as symbols of cultural exchange and diplomatic relations between China and the Western world. They stood as a testament to the Qing Dynasty’s desire to blend traditional Chinese architecture with external influences, creating a unique architectural legacy within the magnificent grounds of Yuanmingyuan.

The Garden of All Gardens

Once known as the “Gardens of All Gardens,” Tantan Dangdang, Fanghu Shengjing, and Haiyantang Hall are just a glimpse of the masterpiece that existed before the British and French troops burned it to the ground in the Second Opium War in 1860. As the chaplain of the British forces Robert McGee once said, it contained 5,000 years of some of the greatest ancient historic treasures in the world.

All in all, the construction of the original Old Summer Palace lasted 150 years. And while it’s difficult to put a number on the cost of the project, in the end, it was considered the “Versailles of the East” for its marbled palaces, towers, and temples surrounded by gardens and pools with swans and peacocks.

Nowadays, the Yuanmingyuan ruins are protected by the Chinese government, and the garden grounds have been continuously improved over the years. With an exhibition hall and some reconstructed buildings, you can get a feel for how the Old Summer Palace felt in its heyday. You can even visit the heads of some of the bronze zodiac statues at the Poly Art Museum in Beijing and the National Museum of China.



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