Yuanming Yuan In Paintings


The former glory of the imperial garden-palace, Yuanming yuan, also known as the ‘Garden of All Gardens’ comes to life in this exhibition that explores the history of the Qing court alongside the life led by its inhabitants within the garden. Over 190 objects, including paintings, architectural models, and other works associated with this imperial garden and palace, which served as the principal residence of five Qing emperors. Highlights include the aesthetic tastes of the emperors, details of the festivals, and the relationship between members of different generations of the imperial family.

The palace is located in northwest Beijing and covers an area of 3.5 square kilometres. The Kangxi period (1662-1722) of the Qing dynasty saw the initial construction of this large-scale garden-palace was started during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (r 1662-1722), Since its inception, Yuanming yuan was a place where generations of the imperial family gathered together.

The Kangxi emperor spent a considerable amount of time in the Garden of Exuberant Spring, the Qing court’s first garden- palace for daily residence and government affairs in a northwestern suburb of Beijing. His adult sons were granted the opportunity to build and live in gardens in its vicinity to stay close to their father. In 1709, his fourth son, Yinzhen (later the Yongzheng emperor), was promoted to Imperial Prince, the first rank of nobility. Yinzhen was given a garden to the north of the Garden of Exuberant Spring, which was named Yuanming yuan, meaning the Garden of Perfect Brightness, by the Kangxi emperor.

As the Yongzheng emperor(r 1722-35), a masterplan was developed and the next phase of this famous garden-palace came to fruition. The emperor expanded the garden and made it the principal imperial garden-palace, where he lived and attended to state affairs for an average of over 200 days a year. Over the next century, many episodes in the lives of imperial family members took place in the garden. Stories of them as parents, children, and spouses have been memorialised in art and writing.

Its construction, expansion, and embellishment over the course of more than a century by five successive emperors (Yongzhen, Qianlong, Jiaqing, Daoguang, and Xianfeng), made it the hub of daily life, government, and ceremonies. It was also used for leisure by the five emperors, who spent time there with family, making it the most favoured imperial residence outside the Forbidden City. With its beautiful buildings and spectacular scenery, the garden-palace, together with its affiliated gardens (the Garden of Eternal Spring and the Garden of Gorgeous Spring), left an indelible mark in the history of Chinese architecture and art. It embraced the essence of both Chinese and Western architecture, making it the pinnacle of Chinese imperial landscaping arts.

The layout of Yuanming yuan is distinctive for its profound symbolism. The nine small islands in a lake to the north of the main ceremonial hall stand for a traditional Chinese concept of territorial division of the world and constituted the imperial family’s core residence; to the east side of the nine islands was an expansive lake with three islands representing the mythical Islands of the Immortals, said to be in the East China Sea. Alongside this ancient Chinese worldview, buildings employing architectural elements from Europe were constructed along the border of Yuanming yuan’s adjacent garden. This unique design reflecting such a worldview showed that Yuanming yuan was the Qing imperial court’s foremost garden-palace.

It was the Yongzheng emperor’s decision to construct the nine small islands and to name one of them ‘Nine Continents in Peace’, which then became the imperial family’s residence over the reign of five emperors. The name expressed his hope for stability and prosperity for his people across the territory. Located at the back lake of Yuanming yuan, this area comprised nine islands that encircled the lake, and was one of the earliest built scenic complexes in the garden.

The concept of Nine Continents dates back to the pre-Qin period, when people saw the Chinese territory as containing nine regions. Although the meaning of the term evolved over time, it generally encompassed people’s conception of the world’s vastness. The hanging scroll displayed in the exhibition, The Qianlong Emperor at Leisure by Zhang Tingyan, was originally affixed to the interior of a building in Yuanming yuan. It faithfully depicts the architecture of the western section of the Nine Continents in Peace. The emperor is seated in the eastern secondary bay of the Study of Delight in Confucian Canons and Histories, exactly where this painting once displayed.

Some of the most sophisticated and established gardens in China were found in Jiangnan, literally ‘south of the Yangtze River’, a region known as a hub of art and culture in China. The Qing emperors were inspired to commission gardens in their imperial estates in the north using these gardens as their model, when they encountered them during their journeys to the south. Garden design and landscape painting are intrinsically connected art forms and landscape paintings also influenced garden design, which, in turn, were depicted in paintings. Gardens and paintings of gardens from the past can be seen as a major source of inspiration in the evolving creation of the Yuanming yuan.

A section in the exhibition focuses on three sets of landscapes in the imperial garden that were modelled after scenic spots in Jiangnan, in southern China: the Ten Views of West Lake in Hangzhou, the Garden for Ease of Mind in Wuxi, and the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou. The Kangxi emperor and the Qianlong emperor were the only two emperors of the Qing dynasty who made as many as six trips each to the Jiangnan region. The Qianlong emperor typically began his southern tour in the first lunar month, travelling by both water and land. Around the end of the fourth lunar month or the beginning of the fifth one, he would return by the same route. Most of the time, Hangzhou marked the end of the journey, and the West Lake, renowned for its beauty, was an essential stop.

Initially a garden in a Buddhist temple, the Lion Grove Garden in Suzhou was built in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). In the late Yuan and early Ming period (1368-1644), Zhu Derun (1294-1365), Ni Zan (1301-74), and Xu Ben (1335-80) were invited to create paintings of the garden. Ni Zan’s painting entered the imperial collection in the early Qianlong period and out of his fondness for it, the Qianlong Emperor started to search for the garden in the painting. He eventually found it during his second southern inspection tour of 1757. After his discovery of the Lion Grove Garden, the emperor always made a point of visiting the garden with the Ni Zan painting during his trips to the south.

There was also a pavilion that stood in the middle of the water in the Lion Grove Garden in the Garden of Eternal Spring. To the south of the pavilion were steps that went into the water, so the emperor could get directly on shore when arriving by boat, which the Qianlong Emperor named as the Rippling Moon Pavilion. On both its right-hand and left-hand sides were waterside pavilions with verandas that were connected to the main hall on the north that shows that architecture was the main visual focus of the western section of the Lion Grove Garden. This section was built in 1747, however, it was before the Qianlong emperor had begun his southern tours of inspection, so the architectural complex in the western section of the garden could not have been originally a design based on the Lion Grove Garden located in Suzhou.

In contrast, the eastern section of this garden was greatly inspired by Ni Zan’s Lion Grove Garden painting. The scale of the architecture was reduced, and the visual focus shifted to mountain landscapes. These were made mainly of large, porous limestone rocks known as taihu rocks or scholars’ rocks; on top of these, pavilions and towers were built. The scene blended the grandeur of an imperial garden with the elegance of Suzhou landscapes.

The Qianlong emperor stored his collection of Ni Zan’s paintings and other works – including the engravings of the European-style palaces – in the Elegant Collection Pavilion in this eastern section, and he replicated the Lion Grove Garden again in the Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat in Chengde. These actions prove how much he valued and appreciated these paintings and landscapes. By reproducing the Jiangnan landscapes in the outskirts of Beijing, and giving the scenic complexes names with historical references, the Qing emperors bestowed upon the Yuanming yuan an important role in cultural inheritance, as well as in the development, regeneration, and links to other regions of China.

Life at Yuanming yuan, the imperial residence for 136 years, was marked by rituals and seasonal activities. Banquets and performances around the Lantern Festival symbolised the court’s wishes for an auspicious year. Although the Qing emperors were of Manchu ethnicity, they greatly respected the traditions of preceding dynasties. Take the Qianlong Emperor as an example: whenever a traditional festival, one with customs passed down from generation to generation, occurred – such as New Year’s Day, the Lantern Festival, and the Double Seventh Festival – he would hold great celebrations in the palace.

The Lantern Festival was the first important festival after New Year’s Day. According to folk tradition, on this night when the full moon shines, families would eat yuanxiao, glutinous rice balls that symbolise family togetherness, and hang lanterns, light fireworks, and play riddle games. During the Qianlong period, the emperor would leave the Forbidden City after the new year and travel to Yuanming yuan for the Lantern Festival celebrations. A painting in the exhibition shows the Qianlong Emperor and his family celebrating the Lantern Festival at a spacious area in the complex called High-Reaching Mountain and Outstretched River.

These various seasonal activities were carried out in different locations of the garden, adding to the variety of life in the garden, as well as and carrying out the emperor’s divine responsibility to act in accordance with seasonal rhythms. Another painting in the exhibition, Yongzheng’s Activities of the Twelve Months, a set of 12 hanging scrolls, reflects these duties and illustrates imperial life through architecture, landscapes, seasons, and traditional customs. Scenes like lantern-offering in the first lunar month, boat racing in the fifth lunar month, rituals for needlework dexterity in the seventh lunar month, and snow viewing in the twelfth lunar month are portrayed. Since there are no written records, scholars still debate whether the landscapes in these paintings were in fact set in Yuanming yuan.

The final section of the exhibition deals with the sad fate of the emperor and his family, closely linked to the fate of the Yuanming yuan itself. Many imperial family members were born and grew up in Yuanming yuan. In the Qing dynasty, the Manchu emperors did not strictly follow the Han tradition of designating the eldest son as the heir. In the early Qing period, heirs were decided through consensus among various parties. Perhaps because he experienced competitions among princes, the Yongzheng Emperor established a system that required heirs to be designated in secret. An order with the name of the heir would be stored in a brocade box and placed behind the plaque in the Palace of Heavenly Purity in the Forbidden City that read ‘Rectitude and Honour’. Only when the emperor passed away would the box be opened publicly in the presence of imperial family members and high-ranking officials. Two months before the birth of the fourth prince, Yizhu, the future Xianfeng emperor, the eldest prince died of illness. The second and third princes also died at a young age, making Yizhu the eldest surviving prince. His troubled reign as the Xianfeng emperor (r 1850-1861) also witnessed the demise of the Yuanming yuan.

A poignant hanging scroll by He Shikui (d circa 1844), Autumn Courtyard Overflowing with Happiness, shows the Daoguang Emperor and his children, including the future Xianfeng emperor, enjoying family leisure time in the imperial garden. The seal impression reads ‘Seal of the Hall of Vigilance and Frugality’, which suggests that the painting was once placed in the hall bearing this name. The emperor appeared to cherish this work, as he inscribed ‘Autumn Courtyard Overflowing with Happiness’ on the painting and its title slip. On the slip he has also written ‘Jiawu year of the Daoguang period (1834)’.

When Yuanming yuan was looted in 1860, this painting was taken out of the garden and recovered by Qing soldiers. Prince Gong, the sixth son of the Daoguang emperor, ordered that it be sent back to the Hall of Imperial Longevity in Beijing. The portrayal of Xianfeng’s idyllic childhood with a loving father and sibling companion was frozen in time, remembered through this painting and related artefacts.

By the mid-19th century, the Qing dynasty had faced numerous upheavals both at home and abroad. The Taiping Rebellion, China’s civil war of the 1850s had weakened Qing rule and by the autumn of 1860, during the Second Opium War (the colonial war which pitted Great Britain, the US, and France against China), the Qing army was defeated by the British and French allied troops in a battle near Beijing. China had also been forced to sign treaties with Russia while countering the Taiping Rebellion.

In 1860, the Xianfeng fled the capital and sought sanctuary in Chengde, the former summer resort of the imperial court, not long before the British and French troops occupied and looted Beijing. During this military campaign, possessions and artworks belonging to the Xianfeng emperor were seized from the Yuanming yuan by officers and equally divided between British and French armies.

On 18 October, its fate was sealed – Yuanming yuan and other imperial residences in Beijing’s western suburbs were engulfed in flames. The last emperor born in the Summer Palace could never return to this magnificent place that his ancestors had spent over a century building. The grandeur of Yuanming yuan may have gone forever, but echoes of its magnificence presence remain today – its ruins and gardens can be seen in a large public park. Rebuilding the park and archaeological study are still a matter for open discussion. It is believed over a million objects were taken from the site, and, according to UNESCO, many artworks and objects are now in 47 museums scattered throughout the world.

Until 12 August, 2024, Hong Kong Palace Museum, hkpm.org.jk