Rising from the Ashes

15 April 2013

Reconstructed Summer Palace in Zhuhai looks for new lease of life

By Ou Nian-le in Zhuhai

It was one of the architectural marvels of the world and had the best collection of art on the planet. But, over three days in October 1860, British soldiers burnt down the Old Summer Palace of Beijing and it has never been re-built.

In the 1990s, the city of Zhuhai decided to build the first reconstruction of the palace, over an area of 1.4 kilometres, complete with Ming, Qing and western palaces and a big lake. It was the only royal garden in southern China and aimed to attract visitors who wanted a mix of history and amusement park. It charged a high admission fee of 130 yuan.

Over the last two years, however, the numbers of visitors faltered as other attractions opened in the city and elsewhere in Guangdong; the New Summer Palace (NSP) fell into the red. In an ambitious attempt to turn it around, the owners abolished the entrance fee, as from October 2012; the fees accounted for 75 percent of the revenue. They hope to more than triple the number of visitors to three million a year and earn money from performances, restaurant trade and sales of goods and services within the palace.

Their model is the park around the West Lake of Hangzhou, which abolished its entrance fee in 2002. Since then, its income has risen four-fold as visitors spend more on attractions within the park. The city government is providing a subsidy of 53 million yuan over two years to ease the transition.

It is a gamble. If the revenue does not increase, the biggest tourist attraction in Zhuhai could close. Huang Xin, general manager of the Jiuzhou Tourism Group which runs the park, said that it had always wanted to cut the entrance fee. “The government subsidy is helping us to do this. As the old tourism models have become out of date, the trend is for experimental and interactive products. After two years, the NSP must make its own way. We must explore and be brave.”

Future promise

As from 17 October 2012, the NSP has been open to the public free of charge, with a daily limit of 15,000 people. The owners aim to increase the annual number of visitors from 700,000 to three million. To accommodate the larger numbers, they will build a new car park with 2,000 spaces.

They will increase the number of performances, including a large-scale production called the ‘The Burning of the Summer Palace’, which will present the former glory of the site and its decline and destruction. In Hangzhou’s West Lake Park, the most popular performance, done eight times a day, earns 200 million yuan a year; its troupe has 100 artists.

The owners will turn an open space in front of the NSP, of 80,000 square metres, into Zhuhai’s largest cultural square and performance venue.

They will also invest 20 million yuan into a ‘water dream city’, to make the site more competitive and keep pace with its rivals. They will double the space of the water attractions to 80,000 square metres. They will invite foreign designers and architects to take part in the project.

He Jingtang, a well-known architect and member of the China Academy of Engineers, heads a team that drew up a plan for the renovation of the Gongbei area of Zhuhai where the palace is situated. “Zhuhai is a beautiful coastal city. If we want to turn this beauty into an attraction, we must raise its cultural profile.”

He said that the decision to make entry into the NSP free would add to the city’s cultural value. “This and the opening of the large square in front is an opportunity to put Zhuhai in the top rank of cultural cities in the world. The palace is becoming a park for popular culture. The square will complement it, adding cultural and commercial value,” he said.

“Zhuhai has many small parks but lacks a large public square. This new square must preserve the traditional cultural character of the palace and have a modern, romantic flavour,” he said.

The decision has been warmly welcomed by retailers, restaurant and hotel owners and others in the tourism industry in Zhuhai. They see the decision as bringing more visitors to the city and boosting their income.

Building a palace

The NSP cost 600 million yuan and took four years to build. It opened on 2 February 1997, one of the largest tourist sites in Zhuhai. The owner is the Jiuzhou Development Company, a state-owned company that listed on the Hong Kong stock market in May 1998. It is an important investment vehicle of the Zhuhai city government in raising money in Hong Kong and abroad.

It is the city’s largest tourism company, which, along with the NSP, operates hotels, villas, an international travel agency and 13 high-speed boats that transport 1.8 million passengers a year from Zhuhai to Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

The NSP covers one sixth of the area of the original one built in the Qing dynasty, with 18 of its 40 buildings. They are of the same size as the originals. It has three main parts – the imperial garden of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the classical garden of South China and buildings in the western style designed by two Jesuits resident in Beijing during the Qing dynasty.

It has a lake of 80,000 square metres and a water city with many attractions, including waterfalls, fountains, rapids, a children’s swimming pool and waterways of different kinds. There is a shopping street with stores, restaurants, hotels and tea houses.

The site also offers stalls and attractions, as well as large-scale song and dance performances on big stages, many with historical themes. In effect, it offers visitors both a glimpse into China’s history and an amusement park with many things to do.

Since it opened, it has attracted more than 10 million visitors and been designated as a base of ‘patriotic education’. The central government has classified it as a 4A tourist site.

Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace was one of the architectural wonders of the world, covering an area of 3.5 square kilometres, almost five times the size of the Forbidden City and eight times the size of the Vatican City.

Located eight kilometres northwest of the Forbidden City, it was built in the 18th and early 19th century as the place where the Qing emperors lived and managed state affairs. They used the Forbidden City for formal ceremonies.

On the ground stood hundreds of structures, such as halls, pavilions, temples, galleries, gardens, lakes and bridges. Thousands of masterpieces were stored there, making up one of the largest art collections in the world. Many dated to the Shang, Han and Zhou dynasties; some were more than 3,000 years old.

A majority of the buildings were of Chinese design, of the Ming and Qing period; a few were in Mongol and Tibetan styles, to reflect the size and diversity of the empire. Emperor Qianlong also invited two Jesuits, Guiseppe Castligione and Michel Benoist, to design European-style palaces, fountains and gardens.

Construction began in 1707 and continued through the rule of six emperors and several expansions for over 150 years.

During the second Opium War of 1860, the Anglo-French army entered Beijing. On 29 September, two of their diplomatic envoys and an escort of 37 British and Indian soldiers went to negotiate a truce with a royal prince. They were surrounded, taken prisoner and tortured.

After two weeks, 18 of the party were released; the other 21 were killed, their bodies barely recognisable.

On 7 and 8 October, British and French soldiers entered the palace, unopposed by Imperial troops in the area, and plundered the items they wanted.

On 18 October, Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the destruction of the palace, in retaliation for the torture and killings.

It took 3,500 British troops to set the whole palace ablaze; it took three days to burn. Only 13 royal buildings survived. The soldiers were each given prize money of 48 pounds sterling.

“You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt,” wrote Charles Gordon, then a captain in the British Army who later became a national war hero. “These places were so large and we were so pressed for time that we could not plunder them carefully.”

The soldiers preferred to loot porcelain – much of which can be found today in country houses in Britain and France. The Chinese government estimates that the soldiers stole at least 1.5 million pieces, including enamel, sculptures, furniture and silk paintings.

Wang Kaixi, a history professor at Beijing Normal University, said that the French army was against the burning and its soldiers played no part in it.

In an open letter, French author Victor Hugo denounced the looting as a crime and demanded that the stolen items be returned to China.

In 1900, many of the buildings that had survived or been restored were burnt by soldiers of the eight-power Allied forces sent to put down the Boxer rebellion. It became completely ruined.

Modern era

Most of the site was left abandoned and used by farmers as agricultural land. In the 1980s, the land was reclaimed by the government and turned into a historical site.

But no move has been made to restore the palace. This would be a colossal undertaking and cost billions of yuan. Many oppose it on the grounds that it would destroy an important relic of modern Chinese history.

They say that the site serves as a reminder to the tens of thousands of visitors every year of the barbarism of foreign armies against a weak China, and a lesson for the present. Most of the relics stolen from the palace remain in foreign museums and private collections. Despite the best efforts of the government, only a few have been returned.

On 17 December 2012, a French auction house sold for 1.1 million euros a green jade seal from the Qianlong period (1736–95), despite a protest from the Association of Chinese Art in Europe which said it was pillaged from the palace. The auction house said that it came from the personal collection of a French family which had owned it since the end of the 19th century.

Photos by Manuel Cardoso