A decades-old debate on whether to restore the iconic Summer Palace in Beijing to its former splendor was recently reignited after China’s National Cultural Heritage Administration rejected a proposal to rebuild it.
“The palace’s ruined remains warn future generations not to forget China’s national humiliation, and to remain vigilant,” the administration said in a statement, alluding to the country’s colonial past.
The Summer Palace on the outskirts of China’s capital is a tranquil park with canals, bridges, pagodas, autumn-orange ginkgo trees, stone ruins, and a few traditional buildings. Despite still covering a large area, the site today represents only a shadow of what stood before.
In its heyday, the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, was a 3.5-square-kilometer complex of gardens, palaces, temples, libraries, and galleries described as the zenith of Chinese artistry and design. The first structures were built in 1709 and developed over 150 years, once serving as the residence for emperors and the Qing dynasty’s base of operations.
In 1860, British and French troops looted and burned the Summer Palace in response to the killings of 20 foreign emissaries during the Second Opium War. Forty years later, it was further damaged by a coalition of foreign nations during the upheaval of the Boxer Rebellion. Historian Bernard Brizay described these acts of cultural destruction as equivalent to invaders blowing up the Palace of Versailles, looting thousands of priceless artworks from the Louvre, and burning France’s national library to the ground.
Since rebuilding the Old Summer Palace was first proposed in 1980, there has been an ongoing public debate about whether its ruins should be left to stand as a permanent reminder of China’s dark history — the “century of humiliation” under colonial rule — or rebuilt at great cost as a glorious symbol of national rejuvenation.
“Our country has a population of nearly 1 billion people, and it’s still very poor,” state-run newspaper People’s Daily wrote of the proposal at the time. “The problem is a mountain that would require a lot of funding to solve.”
Though no renovation was approved in 1980, the Summer Palace has undergone limited reconstruction in the decades since. Its grounds were spruced up ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, but only around 10% of the former structures have been rebuilt.
Tourists take photos at the Summer Palace in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2019. People Visual
During this year’s “two sessions” political meetings in May, rebuilding the Summer Palace again emerged as one of thousands of “recommendations” put forward by the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislative body. Delegate Yan Jiangguo proposed that the palace be rebuilt for educational purposes, as well as to encourage “a culture of patriotism.”
Six months later, on Nov. 5, the National Cultural Heritage Administration posted a now-deleted response on its website. The statement said the Summer Palace grounds are a testament to China’s history of foreign invasion, and as such should continue to be developed. However, a shortage of historical and archaeological references presented challenges for an accurate reconstruction, the statement continued, and the necessity and feasibility of a rebuilding project would require further consideration.
Both the delegate’s proposal and the government’s reply were widely reported by domestic media beginning last week, to a mostly negative reception. In a commentary Thursday, state-run newspaper Guangming Daily called the remains of the Summer Palace “the most realistic teaching materials” for instilling a patriotic education.
“Though humiliating, they cause people to think,” the author wrote. “They use a cruel reality to tell all Chinese people: Those who fall behind are struck down, while the strong rise and prosper.”
On microblogging platform Weibo, many users were concerned about the possibility of China’s national humiliation fading from collective memory. Others, meanwhile, reacted with cynicism to the potential economic incentives that such a massive and costly project could entail. Still others suggested that the Summer Palace’s former glory be enjoyed through virtual reality, as an alternative teaching tool to the stark ruins.
The prospect of rebuilding the palace has become so controversial that even replicas of it have sparked backlash. In 2007, when a 30 billion yuan (then $4 billion) full-size model of the palace was built near the eastern town of Hengdian, a “Chinese Hollywood” for big-budget screen productions, it was criticized as profiting from China’s historical humiliations.
“As a (former) farmer … I wanted to build the ambition of the Chinese people, and raise China’s national prestige,” Xu Wenrong, the founder of Hengdian Group, the company that manages the film sets, said in a 2016 media interview. “This (project) has been the greatest regret and sadness of my life.”
The following year, Guo Daiheng, a retired architecture professor at Tsinghua University who digitally recreated the Summer Palace, told the South China Morning Post that, patriotic arguments aside, the palace ruins should be left alone for the sake of preserving history.
Those in the rebuild camp “want to recapture old glory, but they don’t understand the importance of cultural relics,” she said. “A ruin like Yuan Ming Yuan is a historical record. In this case, that history includes its destruction by fire. If you rebuild, you erase the record.”
Contributions: Liu Siqi; editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: People Visual)