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Old Palace, New Status

updated: 2012-11-09

People's Daily, November 8, 2012
It has been 152 years since Anglo-French Allied Forces burned the Old Summer Palace to the ground, leaving only piles of marble lying on the ground in a forlorn atmosphere.
The debate over whether the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan, should be preserved as it is or restored to its former glory has been continuing in fits and starts over past 30 years. However, this question may see its final resolution in upcoming years when a decision will be made on whether to approve the Haidian district tourist attraction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
New focus
Although a few people are still debating whether to rebuild the Old Summer Palace, the main focus has shifted to preserving the site under the UNESCO banner, according to Yao Limin, vice secretary general of the Yuanmingyuan Society of China.
"Now people have shifted their focus to put this relic on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites," Yao said. The idea was first advocated in October 2008 by the ex-deputy director of the Yuanmingyuan Society of China, Xie Ninggao.
Why did the Old Summer Palace apply for world heritage status that late? Chinese people weren't aware of the importance of cultural relics protection in the early years of the People's Republic of China. Changing leaders in Beijing, complicated and long debates over whether rebuild it or not, and moving residents off of the palace grounds all delayed the proposal.
After it was set ablaze by Anglo-French invaders, the Old Summer Palace was left in ruins in 1860. Since then, people moved onto the grounds, planting crops and vegetables, gradually transforming this imperial garden into tiny villages. Many out-of-towners settled there, and private factories set up on the grounds as well.
Yao says most people who lived on the Old Summer Palace grounds moved out by 2010, with the exception of the No.101 Middle School and some government departments. Many buildings and shops circle the old grounds.
"The Old Summer Palace deserves to be included on the World Heritage Site list," Yao said. "It is now a patriotic education base, but that's not enough. If it were a World Heritage Site, then everyone including people from abroad or people whose ancestors were French or British could also come here for a visit. World heritage belongs to all human beings, and the Old Summer Palace is a place for people to look back the history. Together they could work for a world that is a harmonized one, instead of only Chinese visiting to ponder the past." Both Chinese and foreigners should learn lessons from the Old Summer Palace, Yao said, and the Old Summer Palace can only be better protected once it is included on the World Heritage Site list.
Preserve or restore?
Debates over whether to preserve or renovate the Old Summer Palace begin in the 1980s when China implemented its opening up and reform policy.
There have been four major debates about the fate of the site so far, says Yao. The first one started in 1980 and lasted until 1988, and revolved around whether the site could be used for other purposes and have other buildings, or should be maintained as a historical site. The second debate had two phases: from 1995 to 2000, over whether to restore it or not, and from 2003 to 2004, over how best to protect the site's environment. The proposed ecological protection measures soon triggered the third debate in 2005 over appropriate drainage for the artificial lakes throughout the grounds. The fourth debate, which went on between 2006 and 2009, was about whether the Old Summer Palace could be moved and rebuilt in other places or not.
During those debates, many proposals were put forward. One involved rebuilding the Old Summer Palace in Zhejiang Province. A Beijing People's Congress commission proposed rebuilding the palace in its original splendor.
On February 18, 2006, Hengdian Group announced it would rebuild a replica of the Old Summer Palace in Hengdian, Zhejiang Province. This triggered another wave of debates. Hengdian's plans failed to materialize in the end.
In 2010, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage named the Old Summer Palace an archaeological park, which ended the debate over restoring it temporarily. But last year, a Beijing People's Congress commission proposed restoring the Old Summer Palace, opening the debate again. But the proponents of rebuilding were not universally popular. A Sina online poll showed that 77 percent of people disapproved the deal.
Ye Tingfang, a notable Western literature expert and expert in the history of the Old Summer Palace, is one of the experts who oppose rebuilding the Old Summer Palace. "The Old Summer Palace remains serve as a place where people can know that part of a miserable history. It is the crime scene. If you rebuild it, it would be another catastrophe that we do to the Old Summer Palace," he said. "Rebuilding the Old Summer Palace is actually using the prosperity of the past to satisfy some people's vanity. It's more important for a country to remember its shame than yearn for its glorious past."
From 2010 on, people that approved of rebuilding the Old Summer Palace remained few, and those pushing to make the Old Summer Palace a World Heritage site became mainstream.
Barriers to a better future
In 2010, Yuanmingyuan Society of China together with other organizations declared the Old Summer Palace a memorial that reminds people to strive for the harmony of human civilization.
And during the same year, the management department of the Old Summer Palace ruins together with the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences of Peking University began to research the Old Summer Palace before applying to make it a World Heritage site. Two years later, the Yuanmingyuan Society of China announced its current aim, to protect the site by using World Heritage standards, and much of the research and studies that need to be done in order to provide academic support for any development. This all makes the Old Summer Palace one step further along the road of being a World Heritage site.
Though the hope is good, many barriers still stand in the way.
Wang Shiren, a well-known expert in ancient architecture, said that the Old Summer Palace is not qualified to be the world heritage at this moment.
"There is something wrong with the Old Summer Palace's management, which means that a lot of ruins inside it don't get enough protection and many buildings that don't belong to the Old Summer Palace still stand there," Wang said, adding that the current condition of the Old Summer Palace can't meet the qualifications of a World Heritage site compared with other countries.
"I know there are many things for us to do but we cannot do it without the help from the government. We put forward our proposal of turning the Old Summer Palace into a World Heritage Site and I hope the government won't let us down this time," Yao expressed.

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