Garden of Gardens

Chapter 2.1: Grand Views of the Old Summer Palace

The Chinese name for the Old Summer Palace, Yuanming, means “perfect brightness” and refers to “Perfect brightness illuminating all.” It comes from the sentence, “Perfect brightness knows all” in Great Tang Record of Western Regions by the famous Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang (ca. 602-664). Symbolizing the cultivating influence of the Great Qing Empire on everything illuminated by the sun and moon (i.e., the world), it expresses a wish for peace and prosperity for the people in everlasting eternity.

In 1709, the 46th year of Kangxi’s reign (1661-1722), the emperor presented a northern sub-garden in the Changchun Garden to his fourth son Yinzhen. Intended for his son’s personal use, he inscribed a plaque titling it “Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan),” giving birth to what eventually became the Old Summer Palace.

When the Garden of Perfect Brightness was presented to the son, it consisted of only a few sites of natural scenery. When Yinzhen assumed the throne as the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722-1735), he built on the grounds a main hall named the “Hall of Rectitude and Honor” similar to the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City. Its purpose was for conducting state affairs. Taking the form of a court in front and living quarters in back, the Garden of Perfect Brightness effectively became a long-term office and residential area for the emperor, thus making it the second political center for the court.

When Yongzheng’s successor assumed the throne, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) gave an order to significantly expand the Garden of Perfect Brightness. He also composed poetry for forty of the scenes completed during his long tenure as emperor. During this period, the Old Summer Palace reached its zenith, bringing together classical scenery from throughout the country. Art, history, and mythology make the Old Summer Palace truly a “Garden of Gardens.”

Chapter 2.2: Illustrations of the Forty Views of the Garden of Perfect Brightness

The Forty Views of the Garden of Perfect Brightness represented important scenic sites. These were designed and constructed during the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, and are representative of classic sites from throughout the country, drawn from history and mythology. After their completion, the Qianlong Emperor asked court artists Shen Yuan and Tang Dai to depict the scenes. This became the Album of the Forty Views of the Garden of Perfect Brightness. Each page in the album has a painting on the right side with Qianlong’s poetry on the left transcribed by an official, Wang Youdun (1692-1758), and included an inscription.

Chapter 2.3: Artifacts from the Old Summer Palace in Overseas Collections

Doubts about the ascension of the Yongzheng Emperor to the throne have plagued later generations with anecdotal histories about how he became ruler. This has fascinated people throughout the years. In actuality, the Edict of the Late Kangxi in Chinese (presently in the collection of Academia Sinica) states the orthodoxy surrounding Yongzheng’s assumption of the throne. A search for artifacts from the Old Summer Palace in overseas collections can reconstruct the relationship between these cultural objects and the time and place from which they came.

Chapter 2.4: The Emperor’s Theater of Life: Yongzheng and the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace was a place closely reflecting the ideals of the Yongzheng Emperor in combining both office and leisure space. This palace became the site for the emperor’s everyday life - a place for political functions where he could also live, relax, and host banquets. According to historical records, the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors spent about half of every year living at the Old Summer Palace. In addition to dealing with court matters and receiving foreign envoys, the emperors also held various activities related to annual festivals as a way to strengthen bonds between members of the imperial family. The script for this imperial theater of life appears in the poetry written about the Old Summer Palace by the Yongzheng Emperor. His life and “world of feelings” are recreated using animation. Audiences can experience a “behind-the-scenes” look at imperial life, with amusing vignettes of the emperor.