Old Summer Palace

sights / Historic

Lonely Planet review

Forever etched on China's national consciousness for its sacking and destruction by British and French forces during the Second Opium War, the old Summer Palace was originally laid out in the 12th century. Resourceful Jesuits were later employed by Emperor Qianlong to fashion European-style palaces for the gardens, incorporating elaborate fountains and baroque statuary. During its looting, much went up in flames and considerable booty was sent abroad, but a melancholic tangle of broken columns and marble chunks from the hardier Jesuit-designed stone palace buildings remain.

The subdued marble ruins of the Palace Buildings Scenic Area (Xīyánglóu Jǐngqū) can be mulled over in the Eternal Spring Garden (Chángchūn Yuán) in the northeast of the park, near the east gate. There were once over 10 buildings here, designed by Giuseppe Castiglione and Michael Benoist.

The Great Fountain Ruins (大水法遗址; Dàshuǐfǎ Yízhǐ) themselves are considered the best-preserved relics. Built in 1759, the main building was fronted by a lion head fountain. Standing opposite is the Guānshuǐfǎ (观水法), five large stone screens embellished with European carvings of military flags, armour, swords and guns. The screens were discovered in the grounds of Peking University in the 1970s and later restored to their original positions.

West of the Great Fountain Ruins are the vestiges of the Hǎiyàntáng Reservoir (海宴堂蓄水池台基; Hǎiyàntáng Xùshuǐchí Táijī), where the water for the impressive fountains was stored in a tower and huge water-lifting devices were employed. Also known as the Water Clock, the Hǎiyàntáng , where 12 bronze human statues with animal heads jetted water in 12 two-hour sequences, was constructed in 1759. The 12 animal heads from this apparatus were distributed among collections abroad, and Běijīng is attempting to retrieve them (four animal heads can be seen at the Poly Art Museum). Just west of here is the Fāngwàiguàn, a building turned into a mosque for an Imperial concubine; an artful reproduction of a former labyrinth called the Garden of Yellow Flowers (迷宫; Mígōng) is also nearby.

The gardens cover a huge area – some 2.5km from east to west – so be prepared for some walking. Besides the ruins, there's the western section, the Perfection & Brightness Garden (圆明园; Yuánmíng Yuán) and the southern compound, the 10,000 Spring Garden (万春园; Wànchūn Yuán).