Large Turnout for Sammy Lee Lecture on Chinese Imperial Garden

Large Turnout for Sammy Lee Lecture on Chinese Imperial Garden

Che Bing Chiu at UCLA.

Che Bing Chiu recalls the history of the Yuanmingyuan, the 857 acre "Garden of Perfect Brightness" from which China's Manchu emperors ruled an empire for a century and a half.

Some 160 people filled the Fowler Museum's Lenart Auditorium Saturday, November 6, to hear Che Bing Chiu deliver the 17th annual Sammy Yukuan Lee Lecture on Chinese Archaeology and Art. This was the largest turnout for this event in at least a decade. Professor Chiu's topic was the Yuanmingyuan, the Garden of Perfect Brightness constructed by the Qing court northwest of Beijing over a century and a half from the groundbreaking in 1709 to its destruction and looting at the hands of Lord Elgin's troops in 1860. Che Bing Chiu, who is a research fellow at the Centre de recherche sur l'extreme-Orient at the Sorbonne in Paris, is not only a world expert on Chinese gardens, but is personally involved in the restoration of the Yuanmingyuan in collaboration with Chinese authorities.

The Sammy Lee lecture series is sponsored by the UCLA Asia Institute and the Fowler Museum of Cultural History with funding from the Lee Family Foundation. It is cosponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies. The meeting was opened by Geoffrey Garrett, vice provost of the UCLA International Institute, who warmly thanked Howard and Norma Lee for their generous contributions to the university, including their support to the lecture series, which was begun in 1982 in honor of the 80th birthday of Howard's father, Sammy Yukuan Lee, a noted collector of Chinese laquerware. Sammy Lee is now in his 103rd year. Garrett pointed to the lecture series as one of a large number of events sponsored by the International Institute and its affiliated research centers that are open to the public. He said that this served the university's three-part mission of research, teaching, and community service.

A Man-Made Microcosm of the Chinese Empire

The Yuanmingyuan, Che Bing Chiu related, was both an enormous garden and also a self-contained world for China's Manchu rulers. The Yuanmingyuan proper encompassed 457 acres, and if all three of the gardens associated with the site are included the total was 865 acres. When mostly completed in the 1740s it contained hundreds of buildings. It was used as a residence and compound for the entire imperial family with separate palaces for all of the princes. The emperors generally spent far more time each year at the Yuanmingyuan than in the formal center of rule in Beijing's Forbidden City, in part because Beijing is extremely hot in the summer. The Qianlong emperor, Professor Chiu said, typically spent between 150 and 200 days a year at Yuanmingyuan and only 40 to 50 at his capital in Beijing.

But for Professor Chiu the true wonder of the Yuanmingyuan was not in its palaces but in its mountains and lakes. These were all artificial creations of the landscape architects' art, as the original location was a flat plain. And what was constructed there at unimaginable expense was a miniature topographical map of the Chinese empire, a microcosm of the Middle Kingdom with high hills representing the Himalayas at the western end, a broad stream representing the Yellow River, and many lakes and ponds.

One of the "Forty Scenes of the Yuanmingyuan" of 1744. All of the hills and waterways were artificially constructed on a flat plain to represent a miniature map of the Chinese empire.

"Garden art," Che Bing Chiu said, "was closely related to Chinese landscape painting, dominated by mountains and water, symbolizing the bone and blood of life." If governance was the province of Confucian ethics, he said, the garden, modeled on traditional landscape paintings, "represented a quest for a lost paradise under the influence of Taoism, the islands and mountains of the immortals."

The site of the Yuanmingyuan was carefully chosen, using the maxim "to borrow a view," which meant that for those who could afford it, a garden should be situated so that hills or mountains beyond its walls should appear as a continuation of the interior garden landscape. Situated between Beijing and the Western Hills, this exterior view appropriately represented the highlands of Tibet to those walking in the Yuanmingyuan.

To visualize the garden in its heyday Professor Chiu drew on various art works, especially the silk paintings "Forty Scenes of the Yuanmingyuan." This work, completed in 1744, is an album of 40 paintings, each 24 inches square, housed at the French National Library.

In a talk well illustrated with paintings of the garden during the 18th and 19th centuries, Che Bing Chiu showed the spacious garden as a site for various spectacles, from dragon boat races and the Spring Festival to ice skating on its lakes during the winter. Visitors were received there from Turkistan and Tibet. And there is a painting of the Qianlong emperor out hunting in the garden, accompanied on horseback by his Muslim concubine from the Taklamakan, known in Chinese as Xiang Fei, Fragrant Concubine, wearing Muslim clothing and taking part in the hunt.

Che Bing Chiu showed various paintings of the Qing emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong in the Yuanmingyuan in scenes filled with Taoist symbolism of the quest for immortality.

Jesuits played an important role in the early years of the garden. In the northeast of the Yuanmingyuan there were a set of full-sized replicas of European palaces constructed during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor.

The garden was looted by English and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860, when paintings, sculptures, and written works were seized, many of which found their way into the hands of European collectors and museums. Then British troops under Lord Elgin torched the garden and its many buildings. It burned for three days. Further vandalism took place during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

Restoration of the Yuanmingyuan

The audience was especially interested in the current restoration of the Yuanmingyuan. Much of the northeast section has been restored, but work on the original first section of the garden, at the west side, has not yet begun. Che Bing Chiu has been deeply involved in discussions with Chinese scholars and administration officials on how this will be done, which is a subject of considerable debate. The land of the Yuanmingyuan, he said, had been given over to housing and even factories during the 20th century. After the decision to rebuilt the garden was taken in the late 1980s, the land was cleared.

There are, he said, three basic approaches to what to do in the restoration. One, supported by very few, is to rebuild all of the palaces that were once there. The other two views focus on the landscape, the artificial mountains and water features. Of these, one "faction" wants a kind of simplistic theme park, while the other, which Che Bing Chiu supports, urges a reconstruction of the physical landscape as close as possible to that depicted in the "Forty Scenes of the Yuanmingyuan."

Several members of the audience who have seen the restored section of the garden on its northeast side were of the opinion that for that portion the theme park advocates had prevailed. Che Bing Chiu conceded that there was some truth to that view, but said he expected the restoration of the original west portion to be more authentic. The Chinese government hopes to complete the work and have the whole garden open in time for the Olympics in China in 2008.

Published: Monday, November 08, 2004