o mark the 159th anniversary of its destruction by foreign forces, Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, opened for free to visitors on Friday.
Not to be confused with Yiheyuan, the tourist hotspot known as the Summer Palace in the northwestern hills of Beijing, the Old Summer Palace was once China’s most magnificent imperial pleasure ground. Dubbed, the “Versailles of the East” by Westerners, the complex included a splendiferous array of gardens, fountains, and even Western-style mansions.
Construction on the palace began in 1709 during the reign of the Kangxi emperor and continued for the next 150 years until the place was looted and burned by British and French troops during the Second Opium War on October 18, 1860.
Its destruction was ordered by Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, as recompense for the Qing dynasty capturing and torturing a group of envoys sent under a flag of truce to negotiate, 20 in the party were brutally killed.
Here’s how one plunderer, Charles “Chinese” Gordon, described the ransacking:
We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money … I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.
The destruction of the Old Summer Palace was one of the landmark events in China’s so-called “century of humiliation” at the hands of the Western powers and Japan. It remains mostly a collection of charred ruins that visitors have to pay at least 10 yuan ($1.41) to see.
But that entrance fee was waived on Friday when the site also hosted an exhibition of 37 cultural relics which had been retrieved from overseas.
[Images via NetEase]