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Old Summer Palace renovation restarts
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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 1860.

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 voices.

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 southeastwards.

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 Yuanmingyuan.

( by Chen Xia, November 11, 2007)

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