In a quiet section of the suburbs of Beijing to the northwest of Qinghua University, there once stood a complex of gardens known as the Yuanmingyuan. Built in the Qing Dynasty, this "garden of gardens" was made up of the Yuanmingyuan, and the Garden of Ten Thousand Springtimes.
Yuanmingyuan originated as a garden presented by Emperor Kangxi (reigning 1662-1723) to his fourth son, the future Emperor Yongzheng (reigning 1723-1735). Research reveals that a small-scale construction started in 1707, the 46th year of Emperor Kangxi"s reign. By 1719, in addition to the attractions around the Houhu (Back Lake), the garden had expanded to include Gengzhixuan (Tilling and Weaving Hall) in the north and Shenliu Dushutang (Willow Grove Study) on the west bank of the Fuhai (Sea of Happiness) Lake in the east. Twelve scenic spots were granted names by its owner. Large-scale expansion and construction followed during the reign of Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong.
In 1744, Emperor Qianlong picked out 40 sights in the garden and composed poems in praise of them. Small expansions and renovations continued in the next three decades, and ten more sights were added to the landscape. Altogether, more than 600 halls, pavilions and towers were built. Many of them were imitations of famous gardens in China, especially those south of the Ynagtze River, such as the ten sights in the West Lake scenic area in Hangzhou, the Anlan (Tranquil Waves) Garden in Haining, Zhejiang Province, and the Jichang Garden in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Yuanmingyuan functioned as both an office and a residence for the emperor, a place that best symbolized the principle of "emperors administrating state affairs with perseverance and continuity." On the flanks of the main Palace Gate were the offices of the ministries; inside was the major hall for the emperor to meet his ministers and administrate daily affairs. The back part held living quarters, ancestral temples, Buddhist towers and many other intriguing sights.
Covering an area of 210 hectares with 40 percent water surfaces, the garden was comprised of ten small gardens, the Fuhai in the east as the largest lake in the garden, and its surrounding isles. Almost square-shaped with each side around 500 to 600 meters long, the lake was the venue of the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), the lamp Sailing Festival and other folk activities in the garden"s days of glory.
Yet plundering and burning by the Anglo-French Joint Forces in 1860 and the continual destruction within the next century reduced the Fuhai Lake to rice paddies and reed marshes. The first phase of developing the ruins of Yuanmingyuan Park was focused on reestablishing the Fuhai Lake scenic area. It took about seven months to dig up the lake, build bridges and roads, clean up the ruins and plant grass and trees. On June 29, 1985, the lake and its surrounding attractions were open for the first time to visitors.
Visitors can now stroll about the ruins and view the remains of the following sites: the "Vista of the Square Teapot" on the northeast bank of the Sea of Fortune (Fuhai); the Green Mountain Hut near the northwestern gate; the Jade Islet of Sages in the middle of the Sea of Fortune; the Magnanimity of the Seas and Hills in the West Lake of the Garden of Eternal Spring; Sravasti City, modeled after the
capital of the ancient Indian state of Kosala, which was a repository for statues of the Buddha. The ruins of the high walls of this "city" can still be traced today; and the Source of Culture Pavilion (Wenyuange), which housed the collection of books known as the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature. Besides the remains of the pavilion, one will also notice numerous specimens of Taihu Lake
stone lying abandoned in a pool in its courtyard. In addition, other scattered stone fragments and the flagstones from stone paths can be found in various spots throughout the surrounding hills and meandering streams.
The most striking ruin in the whole garden is the complex of Western-style buildings, the construction of which began in 1746, the 10th year of Emperor Qianlong¡¯s reign. Situated near the northern wall of the Garden of Eternal Spring, these buildings were designed by the Jesuits Castiglione and Benoit. They included the Observatory and Hall of Tranquility, which were decorated with fine fountains and pools in the style of Versailles. In addition, their roofs and walls were embellished with glazed tiles in brilliant colors.