On October 18 the Yuanmingyuan Research Society hosted a
workshop to celebrate Yuanmingyuan Park's 300th anniversary. During
this workshop, the renovation project focusing on the ancient
architecture located in Yuanmingyuan Park became a subject of
heated debate, local media reported on November 6, 2007.
Yuanmingyuan Park, also known as the Old Summer Palace and as
the "Versailles of the East", was once a private pleasure garden of
the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The Anglo-French
Allied Army burned down this magnificent imperial palace complex in
Seven years ago, the Renovation Plan for the Yuanmingyuan Ruins
was announced to the public. Involving reconstruction of 10 percent
of the ruined architecture and grounds, the project was previously
expected to be finished before 2008. But due to strong opposition
from environmentalists and some renowned scholars the project
halted shortly after it kicked off.
Recently, Yuanmingyuan Park management office announced that it
was planning to rebuild a palace gate in 2008. Thus, renovation of
the imperial palace complex restarted despite all the dissenting
Wang Zhili, founder and vice chairman of the Yuanmingyuan
Research Society, is a fervent supporter of the renovation project
yet the 94-year old man was invited only to the workshop's opening
ceremony. But when the workshop concluded on October 20 the old man
reappeared on the conference venue in an attempt to make sure that
walls were not included in the designated 10 percent architectural
renovations mentioned in the plan.
To his disappointment, a Beijing newspaper had reported one day
earlier that the local authorities had decided to renovate largely
walls and palace gates in Yuanmingyuan.
Supporters were concerned about walls because if they were
counted into the 10 percent ration then more palaces would be
squeezed out of the renovation project.
More disappointingly, no further details about the renovation
project were mentioned in the newspaper. Although the first
Renovation Plan for the Yuanmingyuan Ruins was developed in 2000,
no action had been taken during the following seven years.
The renovation project has aroused constant controversy in
academic circles and among locals. As early as 1980, a petition to
renovate Yuanmingyuan was put forward with 1,583 signatures, some
of them being prestigious State leaders.
According to the renovation supporters, partly reconstructing
the imperial palace complex would present a sharp contrast between
the original wonder and the present ruins. Although opinions differ
on how much of the architecture should be rebuilt, renovation
supporters have agreed anonymously that the general landscape,
water system and plant arrangements should be restored according to
the garden's original blueprint.
Wang Daocheng, a specialist on Qing history, explained that the
landscape and water system were the essence of the Yuanmingyuan
Park. First constructed during the reign of the Qing Emperor
Kangxi, the imperial garden resembled the general Chinese
landscape. Totally manmade, hills were distributed mostly in the
northwestern part of the garden and all the rivers ran
In 1860, the grounds were burnt down by British and French
troops. In 1949 when New China was founded, scores of farmers
settled down in the garden areas and established fields for crops
among the hills and rivers. Their actions greatly destroyed the
elegant landscapes and the garden's water system.
According to detailed construction estimates the restoration of
hills, waters and plants will cost 150 million yuan (US$20 million)
and the reconstruction of the ancient architecture will cost 89.38
million Yuan (US$12 million).
Initially, people against the project claimed that this
renovation would cost too much money and add to the country's
financial burden. But as China's economic development has rocketed
forward others began to pose questions about the invisible damage
incurred by allowing the ruins to rest as ruins.
After the renovation plan was devised in 2000, environmentalists
rose up against it. According to environmental protection
organizations the Yuanmingyuan ruins are home to a variety of wild
species, including over 300 types of wild plants and over 160 types
of wild birds. They asserted that most of the plants would be
destroyed when the renovation project began.
In response to these protests, in June 2003 the State
Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) held a symposium on
Yuanmingyuan's renovation and environmental issues.
Environmentalists and specialists in environmental protection were
invited to the meeting. SACH began to waver whether the renovation
project was a boon or a bane for the precious historic relics.
In 2005, most of the plastic sheeting covering the lakebed in
Yuanmingyuan was removed. Everyone involved in the project agreed
that the Yuanmingyuan renovation should give priority to
environmental protection first and foremost.
When the project plan was first developed in 2000, planners only
had a general guideline for the renovation of Yuanmingyuan; more
details would be worked out in the future. During this long-running
dispute, the government has managed to develop a clear picture of
what the Yuanmingyuan ruins should look like.
Zong Tianliang, spokesman for the management office of the
Yuanmingyuan Park, recently said the office was busy modifying the
project details at SACH's request. The new project plan will cover
all the renovation details including work procedures, specific
spots to be renovated and methods to be used to restore the
landscape and water system.
According to Chen Zhihua, a professor at the School of
Architecture at Tsinghua University, project planners should
conduct a thorough investigation into the current situation of
Yuanmingyuan and mull over the plan before finally submitting it to
SACH for examination and approval. For environmentalists, the
project planners ought to become more active in regulating measures
in order to protect all the ecological systems inside
(China.org.cn by Chen Xia, November 11, 2007)