Event: background to Yuanmingyuan artist village

A walk down memory lane, Sunday July 22, 2007, from 3pm on

"With all its treasures, Notre Dame is no match for Yuanmingyuan, that enormous and magnificent museum in the East."
Victor Hugo

The following short-cut through the history of Yuanmingyuan and its role in the landscape of the Beijing artist village's is completely made up of information featured on other websites. Links to those websites can be found at the bottom of the post.

This collection serves as the background for the bei-ci excursion through Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Gardens) with Jiang Jun (editor-in-chief Urban china Magazine) on Sunday July 22, 2007.

more info on the event

Yuanmingyuan Artist Village

18th century

Yuan Ming Yuan was first built at the beginning of the eighteenth century by Emperor Kanghsi, the Ching Dynasty's second emperor, to serve as a place where he could "avoid noise and administrate state affairs." Under his son, Emperor Yungcheng, and grandson, Emperor Chienlung, it was expanded from forty hectares to three hundred and fifty hectares in seventy years' time. The reign of Emperor Chienlung saw Yuan Ming Yuan at the apex of its grandeur. As the monarch of a flourishing era, Chienlung commissioned numerous skillful craftsmen and landscape architects to work for him. He toured the country, asked the painters who traveled with him to draw his favorite scenic spots, and then had them replicated in the garden. He even incorporated Western-style palaces and scenery in the design of Yuan Ming Yuan. The famous water clock, from which the three auctioned animals' heads were taken, was located in a Western-style structure. The clock included the heads of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Water gushed from the mouth of one of the animals every two hours (in ancient China, a day was divided into twelve shih instead of twenty-four hours), and at twelve noon, the animals would spew out water simultaneously. There was also an ingeniously designed "Ten-Thousand-Flower Maze" created after the style of garden labyrinths then popular in Europe. The emperor would ask his eunuchs to play hide-and-seek in it and watch them from a higher place for amusement. In addition to its fascinating scenery, the garden also housed a great diversity of buildings and structures--grand palaces, temples, libraries, theaters, pagodas, and villages. These structures, built with materials expensive and rare, were exquisite in every detail. They embodied an almost impossible variety of design and construction ideas. Inside the buildings were antiques and treasures collected from all over the country and even abroad--paintings, books, jades, jewelry, sculptures, porcelain and all kinds of handicrafts; in short, almost everything that the emperor could get was in Yuan Ming Yuan. It was said that the garden was the largest art museum that China ever had.

19th century

It was during the concluding stage of the opium war that the British and French armies entered Yuan Ming Yuan. By that time, in order to escape the war, Emperor Hsienfeng had already fled from the garden, leaving behind his subjects and other people whom he was obliged to protect. Being a place where the Ching emperors stayed more for pleasure than as a regular abode, the garden was not so securely fortified and was thus more vulnerable and easier to occupy. Lured by the beautiful landscape and countless rare and precious treasures in Yuan Ming Yuan, the allied forces drove straight into it. Since almost all the imperial guards had left with the emperor to protect him, the invading armies encountered little difficulty. They looted and plundered the whole place and even set fire to it at the end. The orders were given by Lord Elgin, leader of the British army, despite disagreement from the French side. Witnessing the demolition, Chinese court official Wen Feng, who was responsible for guarding Yuan Ming Yuan, committed suicide by jumping into the garden's Good Fortune Sea. The fire burned for three days and three nights, destroying nearly eighty percent of the buildings in the garden. The foreign forces plundered the entire collection of curios and valuables. It was a humiliating tragedy for the Chinese people and a most painful chapter in Chinese history. Victor Hugo condemned the action of the British and the French in an open letter: "One day two robbers broke into Yuan Ming Yuan. One pillaged, while the other set fire to it... After filling their pockets to the full with their spoils, they returned to Europe hand in hand all smiling... We Europeans think that we are civilized and that the Chinese are barbarian. Yet this was what we civilized people did to the barbarians... The two robbers' names are France and England."

20th century

Under the order of Premier Zhou Enlai, Yuanmingyuan became a park to remind the Chinese and the world of the destruction wrought by European colonial powers to a harmless and priceless cultural entity that rightly belongs to mankind. The only surviving building was Zhengjuesi (Enlightenment Temple) at the southern part in Wanchunyuan. The other remains are the broken marble columns, some at the Peking University campus and the Beijing Library courtyard.


The earliest "painter village" of China emerged in early 1990s in Yuanmingyuan Garden accommodating the artists around China. The unprecedented concentration brought about opportunities to the artists, and also triggered many sensitive "culture events". In 1995, the artists in Yuanmingyuan Park moved to Songzhuang. Songzhuang Village is the result of a trend migration of artist communities away from big cities, and specifically part of the pioneering group of radical artists in Yuanmingyuan, the old summer palace in the northern part of Beijing. Disillusion with the rat race for money and vanity in the new social order drove free spirits, eccentrics as well as the poor artists into areas where they could live a life relatively free from the financial frustration and restrictions of life in a modern society, away from the constant commercial propaganda of the city. Artists from all over the country gathered here to form a vibrant and creative community in the 1980s where the freedom seemed to have no limits. It was a period of intense artistic exploration and the breeding ground of many talents like Fang Lijun and Yue Mingjun. Other similar communities started to form, for instance the famous East Beijing village and soon the trend was manifest. This trend migration of artist communities into the countryside has profound implications and far-reaching consequences for Chinese avant-garde art. The relative freedom from capitalistic distractions, cultural and political pressures provided the space for inner growth through reflection on the new society and the individuals in it. Communal artistic life encouraged productive exchange and exploration of all sort of ideas. Many of the art works from the time in Yuanmingyuan seem to be asking questions, everything imaginable had to be re-evaluated, from the meaning of success, the role of men versus women to the meaning and purpose of art etc. In this communal setting, the essence of avant-garde art was kept pure and true in increasingly capitalistic China. This intense concentration of creativity did not go unnoticed in the commercial art scene and the society as a whole. Soon gallery owners and the media started to visit, and Yuanmingyuan achieved quite a reputation. The once relatively quiet area became a bustling attraction and artists who depended on a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere to create their works found it harder to live there. It was then that pioneering artists, such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Huiping and Yue Minjun had the idea to move from Yuanmingyuan to Songzhuang in the Tong County, an area 20 km away from the hectic city. In the early spring of 1994, two jeeps full of artists whistled out of the Capital to take a close look at the villages. What they found were dilapidated houses built with blue bricks and gray tiles in the typically simple style of northern peasantry. The old weather-beaten lattice windows had turned dark brown and in front of the windows, one might find an old pomegranate tree with green leaves, on the roof, wild grass would whistle in the wind. It was romantic, spacious and quiet. Fang Lijun, Liu Wei, Zhang Huiping, Wang Qiang, Gao Huijun and Yue Mingjun were the first six artists to settle in Songzhuang with Yang Shaobin, Ma Ziheng, Zhang Jianqiang, Shao Zhenpeng, Liu Fenghua, Zhang Mingqiang, Wang Qiuren and Yao Junzhong joining them by the end of 1994. Eventually, more artists from Yuanmingyuan moved to Songzhuang when the authorities, concerned that the community was in proximity to the largest university campus in Beijing and hence a threat to internal stability, started a thorough investigation of the remaining artists and closed down the area in 1995. So began the communal life of artists in Songzhuang.

21st century

On October 2004, more than 20 Chinese experts gathered in Beijing to discuss the reconstruction of Yuanmingyuan. Ye Yanfang (researcher of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences): “I have always held that the Yuanmingyuan ruins are the most concrete evidence of Western atrocities and should be reserved as the scene of a crime. The lonely, desolated site is a silent accusation of the aggressive acts of foreign invaders, serving as an ideal place for “patriotic education.” In this regard, no other imperial park can compare.”

2006, Yuanmingyuan spin-off in Hengidan

A Chinese private foundation announced Thursday (October,19, 2006) it would construct a replica of the famous royal gardens of Beijing's Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) which was destroyed by fire 146 years ago when Anglo-French forces stormed the building. The China Culture Relics Protection Foundation and the privately-owned Zhejiang Hengdian Foundation for Chinese Cultural Development, led by 72-year-old Xu Wenrong, will collaborate on the project. They intend to build the replica at Hengidan in Zhejiang Province. Funds will be raised in China and overseas for the work and cultural treasures from the garden will be collected, said Xu Wenrong, chairman of Zhejiang Hengdian Foundation for Chinese Cultural Development. Chief designer Zhang Xianchun said, "The replica will be a 1:1 imitation of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) complex featuring the three main building clusters of Yuanming, Changchun and Yichun gardens. It'll cover more than 400 hectares and 40 percent will be water."

Text is a compilation based on the following sources

Splendors of a Bygone Age

The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan Age

YUANMINGYUAN, the Garden of all Chinese Gardens Age

Beijing Modern Milestone Age

The rise of Chinese avantgarde & Songzhuang Village Artists

Should Yuanmingyuan be rebuilt?

Controversial Yuanmingyuan Replica to Proceed