SHANGHAI -- A controversial replica of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, looted and destroyed by British and French troops in the nineteenth century, has opened to tourists in eastern China. The nearly 1,000-acre site, which includes palace buildings, a hilltop pagoda and a vast lake, was built at an estimated cost of 30 billion yuan ($4.8 billion) at China’s largest outdoor film studios at Hengdian in Zhejiang Province.
But critics of the project say it trivializes one of China's most important historical sites. The Old Summer Palace (known in Chinese as ‘Yuanmingyuan’ or Garden of Perfect Brightness) was ransacked by British and French troops in 1860, before being partially burnt down on the orders of British High Commissioner Lord Elgin, as Western powers sought to force China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, to open up to foreign trade. Most of the surviving buildings were destroyed by Western troops following the anti-Western Boxer Uprising in 1900.
The ruins, parts of which were re-opened to the public in the 1980s, have become a potent symbol of historic foreign oppression of China; their destruction is widely featured in history textbooks studied by Chinese schoolchildren. Even the dissident artist Ai Weiwei created an installation, 'Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,' shown in London and New York in 2011, which featured a reimagining of 12 statues of animals looted from a fountain at the palace. The originals were among an estimated 1.5 million artifacts looted from the site, according to Chinese sources; Chinese authorities -- and some individuals -- are still trying to get some of these back.
The founder of Hengdian World Studios, Xu Wenrong, said he wanted to recreate the beauty of the original palace, which included not only Chinese buildings but a few European style structures built with the help of European Jesuit scholars: “I want to present the old days' glory to nurture patriotism among the young generation, by letting them better know our ancestors' creativity – and turn people's sorrow to eagerness for peace,” Xu was quoted as saying by the China Daily.
Some Chinese Internet users have praised the move, saying it will enable them to see one of the long-lost jewels of Chinese architecture. One Taiwanese antique collector even donated three items, which he said had been looted from the original palace, to the founders of the newly constructed replica, according to the China News Service.
However, some experts are unimpressed. The deputy head of China’s most famous architecture school, at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told state media that while the original represented the final “peak of ancient Chinese architecture,” it lost its “meaning as a garden the moment it was burned.”
The administrators of the real Old Summer Palace, meanwhile, have described the replica as “intolerable.” They have threatened to sue for infringement of copyright, and have said that only the government should have the right to organize any reconstruction project. (Plans to reconstruct more of the palace on the ruins of the original site have been discussed, but remain mired in controversy.)
But one legal expert quoted by China Daily said that since the replica was not in Beijing, and was not a copy of the existing ruins, there were no legal grounds for a lawsuit.
And the deputy head of the Yuanmingyuan Society told China’s official news agency Xinhua that building a replica in another part of the country was a “good experiment.” (A partial replica was previously built at a theme park in southern Guangdong province in the 1990s, but unlike the Hengdian version, it was not full size.)
Hengdian's Xu said he had taken critics’ views into account during the reconstruction, and had sought to be as faithful to the original as possible -- though he acknowledged that it had not been possible to get full blueprints of the original structure, and that “some old construction techniques have been lost.”
The Hengdian Group has previously built a replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and of the Tiananmen gate; however, this is its first foray into more creative reconstruction. Hengdian has not said whether the site will be used for film-making -- but Xu predicted that the site would receive between 40 million and 50 million visitors in its first five years.
Its opening comes as China’s leaders seek to promote the study of Chinese history -- and particularly of foreign invasion and the Communist Party’s battle against this -- among the young generation, and have launched a campaign to root out ‘hostile foreign influences’ from Chinese academia.