Yuanmingyuan 圆明园


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Yuanmingyuan Artist Village, now located in a western suburb of Beijing, is considered the oldest Artist Village in China. Although Emperor Kanghsi originally built the village in the early eighteenth century, it was the Emperor's son Chienlung who later encouraged artists to assume residency at the village turning it into a nationally renowned center for the arts. The site continued to flourish until the second half of the 19th century when European forces looted then destroyed the village. However, by the late 1980s a group of young artists who chose to settle at Yuanmingyuan gave the area new life by transforming the locale into a bastion for the new Chinese avant garde.
Artists at Yuanmingyuan Village, Winter (1994) Photo by Zeng Huang
Artists at Yuanmingyuan Village, Winter (1994) Photo by Zeng Huang


History & Development

18th Century

Emperor Qianlong expanded Yuanmingyuan, also known as “The Old Summer Place” or “Garden of the Perfect Brightness”, from the original hundred acres to eight hundred and sixty five acres. This made the site roughly eight times larger than the Vatican in Rome. The best builders and landscape architects in the empire were commissioned to construct a network of elaborate pavilions, gardens and fountains. However, like the Forbidden City, only members of the Imperial family were allowed access to Yuanmingyuan. The entire building project took approximately seventy years to complete. Subsequent Emperors continued to expand and renovate the site until the 19th century.

Fantastic elements such as a “Thousand Flower Maze”, inspired by European garden labyrinths, and an inventive water clock were included in the construction. The water clock featured a waterspout resembling each animal in the Chinese zodiac. At two-hour intervals water would gush forth from a different animal. At midday all twelve animals would spout water in unison. A number of structures at Yuanmingyuan incorporated Western derived architectural elements which gave an exotic European panache to particular sections of the site. Other elements constructed at Yuanmingyuan included libraries, theaters and ornate treasure houses where priceless works of art such as paintings, jades and sculpture were stored. French writer and activist Victor Hugo once commented, "With all its treasures, Notre Dame in Paris is no match for Yuanmingyuan, that enormous and magnificent museum in the East." A Chinese cultural institution has yet to match the quantity and quality of the art collection housed at Yuanmingyuan during this period.
Yuanmingyuan Ruins
Yuanmingyuan Ruins

19th Century

In an attempt to escape invading forces during the last stages of the second Anglo-French opium war, also known as the Arrow War (1856-1860), Emperor Hsienfeng was forced to abandon Yuanmingyuan.

Ignoring the protests of their French allies, British forces, led by Lord Elgin, looted and destroyed nearly eighty percent of Yuanmingyuan’s buildings. The fires that engulfed the gardens raged for three days straight. Many of the European style buildings, unlike their Chinese counterparts, managed to survive the fire due to their stone construction. Recalling the events that took place at Yuanmingyuan, Charles George Gordon, a captain who took part in the looting, wrote: “We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 a piece prize money...I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did to the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralizing work for an army.” Many of Yuanmingyuan’s relics now reside in foreign museums and private collections despite repatriation efforts by the Chinese government. For the rest of the 19th century, with the exception of farmers and looters, the remains of Yuanmingyuan were left relativly untouched until the founding of the PRC.
Yuanmingyuan Diagram Pre-1850
Yuanmingyuan Diagram Pre-1850

20th Century

As a memorial to the once grand site and a reminder of the barbaric acts committed by invading forces, Premier Zhou Enlai turned a small portion of the Yuanmingyuan grounds into a park in 1951. However, much of the land was left to local farmers. The choice to officially memorialize the site may have been motivated in part by a desire to foster a national and anti-imperialist ethos during the Korean War.

Yuanmingyuan was further divided into a series of small business and villages During the Cultural Revolution. In 1982 city officials unveiled a staged reconstruction plan to reclaim sections of Yuanmingyuan. By the late 1990s, all residents who occupied 346 of the 865 remaining acres were evicted to make way for further reconstruction efforts.

Yuanmingyuan Art Village

Among the first artists to gather at Fu Yuan Mun village near Yuanmingyuan in the late 1980s were Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Yang Shaobin, Wang Qingsong, and Qi Zhilong. This inital collective would gain considerable fame in the mid-1990s for founding the Cynical Realism movement.

The occupants of the Yuanmingyuan Village, also referred to as the “West Village”, remained in relative seclusion until the early 1990s. Soon after the events of 1989, additional artists began arriving and setting up studios. In addition to being a creative environment in which to live and work, the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village pro
Yang Shaobin at Yuanmingyuan Artist Village (1994) Photo by Zeng Huang
Yang Shaobin at Yuanmingyuan Artist Village (1994) Photo by Zeng Huang
vided a haven for individuals without the requisite permits or resources to live in Beijing. Life at the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village was less than idyllic. Many of the artists who chose to reside in the village lead a meager physical existence, however, this was a small price to pay for the creative freedom offered by the locale. The film Bumming in Beijing—the Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing) (1990), which follows the story of five individuals living in the margins of society between 1988-1989, offers a look at life similar to what was experienced at Yuanmingyuan.

In May 1992 the China Youth Daily published an article titled “The Artists’ Village in the Ruins of Yuanmingyuan.” This article soon caught the attention of numerous international media sources. Following subsequent publications and art events, the village gained international status as an avant garde hot spot, however, this same recognition soon attracted the attention of government authorities. Concerned about the growing population at Yuanmingyuan, potentially subversive activities, and the locations close proximity to multiple universities, authorities decided to officially close the village in 1995. Artist Yue Minjun recalls the trouble he experienced prior to the village closure stating, "We were a headache for local police, who thought we were troublemakers. They just didn't want us to live there, but had no reason to get rid of us so they kept coming to our homes. It was hard to concentrate on painting." The harassment endured by artists, the ensuing eviction, and the arrest of Yunmingyuan residents is captured in Zhao Liang’s experimental documentary Farewell Yuan Min Yuan (1995), which documents the last days of the settlement. Recently evicted and widely dispersed, many artists from the Yuanmingyuan Village moved on to establish or join other art communities such as the Songzhuang Artists Village

Recent Developments

Since 1995 there have been numerous efforts by private and public organizations to reconstruct elements of the Yuanmingyuan. In 1997 a partial copy of the original imperial palace was constructed in the southern city of Zhuhai in Guangdong. This site was later opened as the New Yuan Ming Palace (圓明新園) amusement park. Other commercial ventures include the film Yuanmingyuan (2006) written and directed by Tiemu Jin, which presents audiences with a computer-generated reconstruction of the grounds. The actual Yuanmingyuan ruins are open to tourists during the day for an entrance fee of around (RMB) 15, or (USD) 2 dollars. Although some gardens, lakes, and scenic vistas have been recreated, plans for large-scale reconstruction efforts remain fiercely debated.


Anne-Marie Broudehoux: The Making and Selling of post-Mao Beijing. New York: Routledge, (2004)

Old Summer Palace

Thomas J. Berghuis: "Background to Yuanmingyuan Artist Village"

Young-tsu Wong: A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, (2001)

Yuanmingyuan Artist Village

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