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Old Summer Palace (圆明园) in Beijing, China has a very sad history. I had a difficult time trying to explain the story of what happened to children because:

  • there are many interlaced histories which led to the looting at Old Summer Palace
  • there are both sides of the stories; China’s and English-France’s sides which complicated the matter.
  • the guides and some websites gave different accounts of the story.

Here’s my take on the story, which I hope is easy for laymen and children to understand. I tried to be as neutral as possible and stating only facts if I can.

Explaining the history of old summer palace (圆明园) to children.

Why does old summer palace (圆明园) have European-style architecture?

The old summer palace (圆明园) was founded in the reign of Emperor Kangxi in 1709 as a gift to his fourth son, Emperor Yongzheng. After Yongzheng ascended to the throne, the Old Summer Palace continued to expand. The construction and expansion lasted for 150 years. It was extolled as the “Versailles of the East”.

95% of the palace had Chinese-style architecture, but you will notice the distinctive European-style pillars in my pictures. The various pavilions, mazes and fountains were planned and designed by the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione while Michel Benoist was responsible for the fountains and waterwork.

Qianlong Emperor became interested in the architectural project after seeing an engraving of a European fountain, and employed the 2 artists to carry out the work to satisfy his taste for exotic buildings and objects. The world famous fountain of 12 Chinese animal zodiac could each sprout water at regular intervals, all by the use of clever mechanism. (All the different sources stated different intervals from 2 hours to 2 months.)

What happened to the old summer palace (圆明园)?

Unfortunately, in 1860, the (second) Opium war happened because Britain wanted to sell opium in China, while the latter wanted to stop them. France joined forces with their European neighbour. When the invading forces gained the upper hand, they sent a small party to negotiate China’s surrender.

China refused and killed the negotiators. An order was passed for the Anglo-French troops to destroy and loot this summer palace, killing more than 300 people hiding in the palace. The fire took 3 days to burn down the palace.

Many of the treasures including some of the 12 zodiac heads belonging to the fountains are still missing.

These heads created a lot of buzz when it was sold for millions, up to 18 million US dollars. However, it also created a lot of uproar among the Chinese community since these are treasures which were stolen from China.

I hope I am not over simplifying the story too much and it is meant for kids to understand more. Let me know what you think.

For those who are interested to see in person how the bronze animal heads looks like, some are on display at museums in Beijing.

I understand that a set of the zodiac heads from Jackie Chan’s movie was given to Singapore’s Asian Civilisation Museum in 2015. It was supposed to be a permanent exhibit; but on my recent trip in 2021, I didn’t see it. Another set was also donated to Taipei museum in Taiwan but removed later since it is “not considered to be art” and Chinese tourists seemed to be boycotting the museum due to the gift. You can also see the 12 zodiac heads in its entirety at Jackie Chan’s museum in Shanghai.

Other places in Beijing which are interesting: