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Monday, July 10, 2000, updated at 17:00(GMT+8)

Imperial Treasures On Show

At the mention of the Summer Palace, people invariably think of ripples dancing on the Kunming Lake, golden-roofed pavilions, halls bathed in the glory of the sun and trails winding through groves of flowers and woods of willows and pines.

The last imperial garden built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China's last feudal dynasty, is reputed for its unison of the natural and the artificial, and the imposing demeanour of the palace buildings and the enchantment that characterizes private gardens in southern China.

Few, however, know that the Summer Palace also has one of the richest collections of cultural relics in China, probably in the world as well. "We have nearly 40,000 relics in our collection, including many that are extremely rare," said Liu Baojun, head of the Summer Palace's staff. "In both historical and artistic value, ours matches the collections of the Forbidden City."

In December 1998, the Summer Palace was included in the UNESCO list of World Cultural Heritage sites. To celebrate the event and its 250th birth anniversary, the Summer Palace is to show for the first time, some of its best cultural treasures, to the public in mid-August or early September.

Garden of Clear Ripples

The Summer Palace was originally called Qingyi Yuan or the Garden of Clear Ripples. It was built in 1750 during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, under whom China was experiencing a period of great prosperity.

According to the "Inventory of Imperial Collections" prepared by the Imperial Household Department, more than 40,000 items were kept in the Garden of Clear Ripples during the dynasty's heydays.

Various reasons can be called upon to explain the expansion of the collection, but one of the most interesting was the character of Emperor Qianlong: He was as keen to collect antiques as he was interested in them. Officials customarily had art objects collected or made to send to his majesty to please him.

However, the collection started to dwindle as the dynasty declined, to 37,583 pieces in 1855, the fifth year in the reign of Emperor Xianfeng. Then the Second Opium War broke out in 1860. British and French soldiers stormed into the five imperial gardens on Beijing's western outskirts, set them ablaze and pillaged the treasures therein.

According to the Qing Dynasty's imperial archives, only 530 pieces were still in the Garden of Clear Ripples at the end of the war, and most of them were broken.

The rebuilding of the Garden of Clear Ripples began in 1886, and in 1890, the name of the garden was changed into Yihe Yuan - the Garden of Perfect Harmony or the Summer Palace, as it is known in the West. The rebuilding was to provide Empress Dowager Cixi, the de facto ruler of China, with an exclusive resort where "Her Majesty would be able to take the best care of herself and fulfil her allotted span of life."

Notorious for wallowing in luxury and for her lust for power, the empress dowager began searching for antiques and art objects for herself.

However, in 1900, the Summer Palace was once again pillaged when an allied army of eight imperialist powers captured Beijing. The empress dowager and Guangxu, the puppet emperor, who was also her nephew, fled to Xi'an in West China, leaving some of her officials to negotiate "peace" or, rather to witness another humiliation of China.

In 1902, Empress Dowager Cixi returned to Beijing and ordered the garden to be rebuilt once more. The Summer Palace collection of cultural treasures thus expanded again, to about 40,000 pieces. "Empress Dowager Cixi reigned supreme," Liu said. "Everything collected or made for her enjoyment had to be the best."

World Treasures

The current Summer Palace collection is largely that built up by Empress Dowager Cixi. According to Liu, it includes more than 20,000 relics that are under special protection as national treasures.

These are, in fact, world treasures. To name just two: a bronze tripod belonging to Prince Bai of the State of Gao from the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century - 771 BC), and a bronze wine vessel in the shape of three rhinos that dates back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century - 11th century BC).

"These cannot be found anywhere else in the world," Liu said.

While strolling in the Summer Palace, the author took note of carefully-carved stone tables scattered throughout the park. "Bronze artifacts were placed on them when important rituals or ceremonies were being held to impress participants with the imperial power," he said. "There are about 200 in the garden."

The jade artefacts kept in the Summer Palace were mostly produced under Emperor Qianlong. As a matter of fact, a unique school of jade carving came into being, at that time named after the emperor. Emperor Qianlong wrote numerous poems in praise of jade artefacts.

"When he took a special liking for a jade article," Liu said, "he would compose a poem to express his happiness and order the poem written on it."

Like the jade articles, most of the porcelain articles kept in the Summer Palace were produced in the Qing period, especially under the reign of Emperor Qianlong. However, the most precious thing is a Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) blue glazed vase with the design of a white dragon. "Across the world, only three such vases have been preserved to this day," Liu said.

Other relics range from the Ming and Qing style furniture to calligraphic works and paintings, embroidery, articles of agate, gold, silver, wood, animal horns or ivory, bamboo-woven articles, watches and clocks, glassware and even a 19th century car.

Paintings done by Emperor Guangxu on a folding screen, a portrait in oil painting of Empress Dowager Cixi by Dutch painter V. S. Hubert and the characters fu (good luck) and shou (longevity) in the empress dowager's handwriting are not really superb art works.

"But their importance as historical relics cannot be underestimated," Liu said.

"As ancient Chinese scholars put it," Liu said, "what is kept in a garden and the garden itself are related to each other like the internal organs of a human body and the human body itself. The Summer Palace wouldn't be true to itself without this collection of cultural treasures. Given the historical background, these cultural relics would be meaningless if kept elsewhere."

The exhibition of Summer Palace cultural relics will be permanently open to the public. "Now 250 years have passed, and the cultural relics in the Summer Palace collection have come to belong not only to China, but also to the world, to the entire human race," he said, referring the garden's newly-acquired status as a World Cultural Heritage site.

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At the mention of the Summer Palace, people invariably think of ripples dancing on the Kunming Lake, golden-roofed pavilions, halls bathed in the glory of the sun and trails winding through groves of flowers and woods of willows and pines.

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