BEIJING: Three emperors, two revolutions and a century and a half later, a debate of palatial proportions is still raging in China.
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief
Some 150 years after the Yuanmingyuan was razed to the ground by British and French forces, the Chinese remain undecided on whether to rebuild the imperial Old Summer Palace. A new round of pro and con arguments has emerged since the Beijing municipal legislature proposed last month to take yet another look at the issue.
In one corner, the restorationists argue that rebuilding the Yuanmingyuan, which means Garden of Perfect Brightness, would showcase China's glory to the world. 'Our Yuanmingyuan is far more famous than Disneyland. Once it is fully developed, it will surely attract visitors from all over the world,' a Chinese scholar once said.
BIG HISTORIC WASTE
'Many people believe that the burning of the Yuanmingyuan was a national humiliation. I think the building of the Yuanmingyuan by the Qing was an even greater national humiliation... If they didn't construct such a luxurious imperial garden, every county in this country could have had a decent college then.'
Analyst Wu Zuolai in The Beijing News
In the opposite corner, however, the 'ruins faction' counters that only by retaining the current 'ruinscape' can the people be reminded of China's suffering at the hands of Western colonial powers.
Such passionate discussions are a result of the Yuanmingyuan's unique role in China's modern history narrative as a symbol of nationalism.
The palace, which was built in the 17th and 18th centuries in north-western Beijing for Qing emperors, was a sprawling summer complex of gardens, villas, lakes, pavilions and hills.
It was like an ancient precursor to today's miniature world theme parks, featuring in its grounds architectural wonders from not only China but also Europe. It housed a vast collection of treasures as well.
But after the Qing court tortured and killed British and French emissaries during the Second Opium War in 1860, the European forces retaliated by looting and torching the palace, which burned for three days.
The order came from the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, whose father had removed ancient sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped them back to London.
Yuanmingyuan was sacked again in 1900, when the Eight-Power Alliance of mostly Western powers invaded China to quell the Boxer Rebellion.
The Chinese-style palaces built with timber that survived the 1860 fire, or were restored after, were completely destroyed. The only structures left standing were a cluster of European-style stone pillars, now called xiyanglou (European palaces), which are the main tourist attraction in the gardens today. This twist of tragedy lent Yuanmingyuan its current unique status.
Stanford University's Chinese literature and history professor Lee Haiyan explained in an essay: 'Without the xiyanglou pillars, Yuanmingyuan might have long fallen into historical oblivion, sharing the fate of earlier architectural wonders in Chinese history whose existence is now purely textual.'
But its survival means a long, tortured debate. Since the Tongzhi emperor, China's third last monarch, ascended the throne in 1861, Beijing has struggled with the ruins.
'The successive Manchu rulers did want to restore the gardens but for want of financial resources. Cixi's appropriation of state funds to build Yiheyuan did not sit well with many officials,' said Prof Lee, referring to the infamous Empress Dowager and her new, much-smaller Summer Palace.
Even with the 1911 Revolution and the 1949 communist revolution, the Yuanmingyuan remained on the agenda, the debate intensifying after 1980 with the emergence of the three 'isms' of nationalism, capitalism and tourism.
The restorationists are motivated by the draw of tourist dollars. Only about 25,000 tourists visit the Yuanmingyuan daily on national holidays compared with 120,000 who throng the Forbidden City.
In the past two decades, the restorationists succeeded in restoring or building a temple, a few pavilions and bridges. But each step was accompanied by loud howls of protests from the 'ruins faction', which regards any rebuilding as a 'Disney-fication' of the original complex.
Most Beijing residents think so too. A survey by The Beijing News to the latest government proposal saw 51.6 per cent of respondents opposing restoration.
Analyst Wu Zuolai argued in the paper: 'The craftsmen today do not have the skills of those from the past. If we really try to restore the palace, it would be akin to trying to draw a tiger, but ending up with a dog instead.'