Restoring a nation

Yuanmingyuan and China’s journey to recover its lost art

by Pei Ying Loh

When the Notre-Dame in Paris went up in flames this April, there was an outpouring of grief all across the globe. People lamented the loss of the 850-year-old Gothic building that has seen France through revolutions, and a wave of nostalgic photo-sharing swept across social media.

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A cultural relic, up in flames

Credit: Fareez Rahmat

Notre-Dame, Paris
Why did they respond this way?
Old Summer Palace, Beijing

Emperor’s Private Residence. 九州清宴 (Nine Continents Clear and Calm). The 40 scenes of Yuanmingyuan. Commissioned by Qianlong, painted by Shen Yuan, Tangdai, Wang Youdun. 1744, painting on silk. Image from MIT Visualizing Culture.

Century of Humiliation
Beijing, China

The Yuanmingyuan represented some of the most beautiful architecture in all of China, and included styles from different ethnicities. Today, the most common image associated with it is the rubble left from Western-style buildings, leading to the misconception that the palace grounds were made from European design only. As the Western-style buildings were made of stone or marble while other structures were made of wood, it endured the fire. 

Trophies of War?
Château de Fontainebleau, Paris

FRIEDRICH WILHELM KEYL (1823-71), Looty. Signed and dated 1861, Oil on canvas, The Royal Collection Trust. Queen Victoria’s Pekingese dog, aptly named Looty in reference to the bountiful loot that British troops took home. Found by Captain John Hart Dunne near the grounds of Yuanmingyuan in the aftermath of its destruction, this dog was presented to Queen Victoria as a gift.

Chinese Museum at the Château de Fontainebleau. Image from MIT Visualizing Cultures.

The incomplete zodiac
Christie’s, Paris

Water-clock fountain at the Hall of Calm Seas (Haiyantang 海宴堂) palace. Image from MIT Visualising Cultures.

What does this all mean for Chinese identity?
Poly Art Museum, Beijing, China

Monkey and Ox heads that were part of a water clock at Haiyantang, in the western-style grounds of Yuanmingyuan. Image from MIT Visualising Cultures.

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