The Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) in Beijing, China
historical ruins in an ancient park in Beijing
The ruins of The Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan), not to be confused with "The Summer Palace" (Yihe Yuan), is located in northeast Beijing not far from Peking University and right next to the west gate of Tsinghua University. This historical site is often overlooked in favor of its more famous (and still intact) neighbor The Summer Palace, which makes it The Old Summer Palace a great place to visit in Beijing to avoid the normal tourist crowds as well as seeing an important part of the history of the ancient capital city that most visitors never see.
Construction of Yuanming Yuan was originally begun in 1707 under the orders of Emperor Kangxi during the early Qing Dynasty. Initially built as a gift for Emperor Kangxi's son, Yuanming Yuan was greatly expanded in 1725 under the reign of that very son, Emperor Yongzheng. Under his direction, many of the waterworks - the lakes, streams and ponds - were built, most of which still exist there today. The next emperor, Qianlong, continued the expansion of Yuanmingyuan, and the gardens were continuously in a state of expansion or renovation until the mid-1800's, a span of over 150 years.
Most of Yuanming Yuan was destroyed in 1860 by British and French troops under the leadership of Lord Elgin in retribution for the capture, torture and execution of around 20 Indian and European diplomats in China. Although much of Yuanmingyuan was burned, many structures at least partially survived or were later rebuilt, only to be destroyed again in 1900 by Western troops opposing the Boxer Rebellion. The entire complex fell into disrepair and was used by farmers during most of the 20th century, undergoing even further destruction at the hands of the locals using the area. Finally during the 1980's the Chinese government stepped in and took Yuanmingyuan over as a historical site worth preservation.
The reconstruction of the original magnificence of The Old Summer Palace has almost been completed (as of February 2009) and its restoration is hotly debated among the Chinese people. On the one hand, the ruins Yuanming Yuan stand as a monument to foreign aggression to the Chinese, but on the other hand, its restoration also serves as a symbol of the rising power of China in the world. It remains to be seen how the restoration will be received when it is revealed later in 2009, but as it stands now, the ruins of the Yuanming Yuan are fascinating to visit, if only to imagine how spectacular the place must have been at its peak.
Yuanmingyuan can be seen easily in a few hours during a Beijing tour and it would be best seen in combination with a tour of The Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) or a Great Wall tour to sections of the Wall to the northeast of Beijing. This spot is overlooked by most tourists and tour companies, so it makes for a very pleasant sightseeing trip off of the beaten path.