Yuanming Yuan is China’s quintessential imperial garden. Also known as the ‘Garden of all Gardens’, it is unique due to the clear influence of Western architecture. It stands out for its harmony when it comes to combining the style of French gardens and the elements of the classical Chinese garden.
The origin of Yuanming Yuan
It is located northwest of Beijing, the country’s capital. Covering an area of 347 hectares, it is the largest of the five Qing dynasty imperial gardens, built over 150 years by various emperors. In them, lakes were made, canals were dug, hills were created, and thousands of exotic trees and flowers were planted. Palaces and pavilions were also built.
Five Qing emperors, from Yongzheng to Xianfeng, spent much of their time in the palaces and pavilions of Yuanming Yuan. They held hearings and attended to state affairs. A) Yes, this place became one of the preferred temporary residences of the emperors. It would be the Qianlong Emperor who named it the best garden in the country.
The garden also enjoyed great fame in Europe and was relatively influential in the development of natural landscape gardens. It did so not only for its high social and historical value, but also for being a benchmark of classical Chinese gardens. The great French writer Victor Hugo even described it as “the model of all fantastic art.”.
Nevertheless, in 1860 the garden was practically destroyed and looted by the allied Anglo-French forces. Years later, during the Second Opium War, it would be burned down and destroyed. Many of his historical pieces are exhibited in museums in other countries, such as the British Museum, the Bibliotheque Nationale in France or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Versailles of China
There are parallels between the Chinese imperial palaces built between the 15th and 18th centuries and the French palaces built in the same period. Thus, just as Louis XIV had moved his official court to Versailles in 1682, Yuanming Yuan went from being a minor palace at the Yinzhen court to becoming an official imperial residence under Qianlong’s reign.
However, the fundamental link is the idea of a landscaped palace where the emperor is presented as the lord of the human and natural worlds. In fact, Qianlong included nine islands with palaces that represented the nine kingdoms of the Empire, also evoking the nine stars and the nine mountains of Buddhist cosmology.
Versailles includes the symbolism of the eight major rivers of France, along with gods, planets, and seasons. Thus, it can be said that these figurations of a divine and geographical nature suggest that royal power extends throughout the earthly realm with heavenly sanction.
In terms of technique and style, the architecture of Versailles is characterized by the use of stone and multi-storey buildings, as well as the use of marble carvings, oil paintings and frescoes. This contrasts with the multiplicity of wooden floors, pavilions, sculptures and paintings on paper or silk of Yuanming Yuan.
The baroque style of Versailles includes white exterior walls and geometric gardens. Instead, Yuanming Yuan unfurls brightly decorated red columns, polychrome ceilings, ink paintings and irregular gardens. Also, unlike in Versailles, the water runs more irregularly.
Useful tips for the visit
The first thing we need to know is that to visit the gardens of the Old Summer Palace we will need a full day. For this reason, we recommend not only being prepared with comfortable shoes and clothing according to the season, but also bringing water and some food. In the same way, within the route there is the opportunity to stroll through its spectacular lake by boat.
Located 12 kilometers northwest of the center of Beijing, we can get around by bus or taxi. We recommend any of the available bus lines to make it much cheaper. Its opening hours are from seven in the morning to six in the evening. The ticket price varies a bit depending on the season but does not exceed 10 euros.