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Transcript of Yuan-Ming-Yuan
Garden of Perfect Brightness
However, the marble and stone remains of the European Garden have outlasted the wooden structures elsewhere in the Garden of Perfect Brightness, providing a glimpse into the period of the last Chinese Dynasty.
Illusions of European Influence
While the ruins provide architectural insight into the site’s physical construction, other evidence provides the cultural context in which these constructions can be understood. Illusions depicted in the twenty views of the European section in Yuanmingyuan as well as the lack visibility of these Western-style works support the notion that the building of the European structures and its testament to Western style was not intended to transform Chinese cultural conventions.
The layout of the European structures depended on the ability to utilize a small strip of land to create an illusion of depth and perspective. While these fountains and buildings were inspired by European ideals their purpose aligned more with providing an architectural stage design for amusement.
Illusions, in this sense, are misleading images presented to the vision. More specifically, architectural illusions take the form of structures or images that create perceptions of objects existing in such a way as to cause misinterpretation of its actual nature. illusions can be observed in copperplate 15, The Great Fountain, and copperplate 20, the European Town.
Architectural blunders did not serve a functional purpose but instead assumed a decorative role. The composition of the European buildings suggest a façade meant for superficial entertainment rather than a deep abiding desire to adopt European style into Chinese culture.
Lack of Visibility
Most works such as imperial portraits and palatial structures with traces of European style were commissioned or built exclusively for the emperor’s viewing pleasure. They were not meant to be incorporated into Chinese culture let alone seen by the masses.
The act of employing European style in a small area of Yuanmingyuan was not intended as a means to subsume Western fashion into the imperial culture but rather create a distinctly hybrid style that provided a Western theatrical experience for the Qing dynasty in a space firmly under their control.
The Garden of Perfect Brightness was largely composed of private imperial territory dedicated to Chinese-style gardens and buildings. However between 1747 and 1783, under the reign and direction of Emperor Qianlong, a group of European artists and architects helped engineer a 20 acre complex encompassing Western-style buildings, pavilions, and landscapes. This section of European-style gardens and structures, Xiyanglou, lay in the larger Eternal Spring Garden in the North East corner of Yuan-Ming-Yuan. The European section was constructed in two stages: first in 1747 comprising the north to south portion of the estate and the second stage presumably 1751 or 1753 extending to the northern border of the Garden of the Long Spring.
The layout of the European structures depended on the ability to utilize a small strip of land to create an illusion of depth and perspective. The twenty acres of land were utilized to artificially increase the perception space by manipulating viewpoints of the structures as if to mimic stage design rather to emulate European ideals.
Additionally, the massive stone blocks coupled with the depth of sculptural engravings provided a sense of theatrical costuming for the buildings.
The positioning of fountain structures in the center of three of the views contributes to the illusion of theatrical space.
Pavilion Harmonizing Surprise and Delight
View 1: Xieqiqu
The Hall of Calm Seas
View 10: Haiyantang
The Great Fountain
View 15: Dashuifa, 15
As the focus of these views lie primarily on the fountains, the surrounding buildings serve more as a backdrop that creates an illusion of depth in a theatrical setting. Thus, while these fountains and buildings were inspired by European ideals their purpose aligned more with providing an architectural stage for amusement.
Other such examples of illusions can be observed in copperplate 15, The Great Fountain, and copperplate 20, the European Town.
The Great Fountain stood independent of any other structure and was the most elaborate of the fountains in the European section. Flanking main fountain on both sides are two large fountains and trees in the shape of pagodas. The main fountain encompasses one deer and ten hounds. When the fountain was activated it is said that the observer could perceive an illusion of the hounds chasing the lone deer.
Similarly, scene 20 which depicts a European town creates an illusion for the observer. The European style village is composed of houses that were partly painted with molded walls. The houses further from the foreground of the artificial lake were fashioned to be closer together than that of the houses closer to the water. This configuration, when viewed from the artificial lake, creates an illusion of distance that gave the European style town a sense of depth and realism.
Both scenes illustrate a landscape that creates the illusion of vast space and movement. The misinterpretations created by these impressions suggest that the European structures served to mainly create a space of amusement for the Chinese emperor and imperial court rather than provide a true edifice of European influence.
According to the American scholar Carroll Brown Malone, the European section “contained numerous false windows and doors, …imitation shells and rockwork, meaningless pyramids…and conspicuous outside staircases”
Thus, these Western-style structures contained architectural illusions that attest to the function of this estate as not a ploy of European mimicry or imitation but rather a theatrical front for Chinese enjoyment. That is, the composition of the European buildings suggest a façade meant for superficial entertainment rather than a deep abiding desire to adopt European style into Chinese culture.
This suggests that these architectural blunders did not serve a structural or functional purpose but instead assumed a decorative role. With functional absence, these features served as mere additions to the splendor and extravagance of a space devoted to entertainment.
The purpose of select European objects were altered to serve a different function than what the object was originally intended for in the West.
On the other hand, there were many objects manufactured in China with the purpose of emulating European objects while adapting them to Chinese style.
In both cases, the Chinese never fully integrated Western influences into their culture but rather picked and chose which aspects of each work they found most desirable or appealing.
In some cases, the shape and form of these objects were modified to function as building material for the structures themselves.
One such case are the Venetian and French glasses the emperor was said to have collected over the span of thirty years. He accumulated so much of the fine glass that he had the lower grade glass broken down to be used as windowpanes for the buildings in the European section.
Thus, these styles were not exposed to all people but rather to a small population of Chinese society, the emperor and his imperial court. As such the Western style was not intended to change Chinese cultural bonds but rather serve as instruments of amusement for imperial culture.
Interpreting Functional Illusions
Other Examples of Functional Divergence
Additionally, the structures in the European section served more as storage places, entertainment complexes, and theatrical backdrops rather than authentic European style palaces. As such, the European-style buildings were never used as residences for the Chinese but rather they were filled with countless European objects collected through the years.
Some of the European objects housed and collected in these structures included furniture, tapestries, clocks, mechanical toys, glassware, and instruments. As such, these complexes served more as decadent storage structures that indulged the emperor’s curiosity of European trinkets.
Similarly, rather than housing imperial family members or court officials, the European palaces instead functioned as a background for imperial portraits. For example, Prince Guo, the half brother of Emperor Qianlong was depicted in a traditional manner in front of an nontraditional background- a triumphal arch in the European section of the garden. This backdrop is suspected to be the Gate to Perspective Hill represented on the seventeenth copperplate.
Thus, the conglomeration of European pavilions functioning as a decadent storage place, an amusement estate, and a portrait backdrop all suggesting its primary function as a theatrical space for the Qing dynasty to experience the West in their own backyard.
Lack of Visibility
The lack of visibility of Western art and western style palaces also testify to the purpose of such works for the Chinese emperors. As these European styles were not meant for public view, it was not the emperor’s desire to incorporate European styles into the larger Chinese culture.
One such example of these works is the portraits of the emperors in European costumes. These grand works were stored select buildings in the European garden and could only be viewed by the emperor and select royal court members and were not intended for public view.
Similarly, the 20 copperplate engravings depicting the European palaces were also not intended for public viewing.
Most works and structures with traces of European-style were commissioned or built exclusively for the emperor’s viewing pleasure. These objects were not meant to be incorporated into Chinese culture let alone seen by the masses.
The Background of the European-Chinese Style
The buildings in the European section were not meant to be constructions derived solely from European influence.
With great interest in Western-style fountains and buildings, Emperor Qianlong recruited the help of Jesuit missionaries to assist in the creation of these European structures. European artists and scientists like Michel Benoit, Giuseppe Castiglione, and Jean-Denis Attiret advised the emperor on his grand project.
However, the majority of Yuanmingyuan’s European section was designed and constructed by Chinese architects Furthermore, the chief architect was not of European background but rather a loyal servant to the royal family, an architect by the surname of Lei. Lei and his descendants executed the majority of the plans for the European palaces and gardens.
As such, upon construction of the European section Chinese elements such as hipped roofs with tiles and animal designs not permeated into the design of the project but coexisted in a realm meant to encapsulate European style.
That is, Western influences, such that which can be observed in the European section of YuanMingYuan, provided the Qing dynasty and Chinese imperial court with a foreign microcosm that accommodated amusement in an estate fully under the dominion of Chinese authority.
Although French and British forces destroyed and looted Yuan-Ming-Yuan, including the European section, the view of what these European-style structures once looked like are made possible by twenty copper plate engravings commissioned by the emperor in 1783.
Yi Lantai, a Chinese Academy Painter thought to have studied under the European artist Giuseppe Castiglione, created the twenty views of the European Gardens.
As such, many assume that the twenty scenes are of sole Western inspiration.
To the contrary, the European views are a conglomeration of Chinese and Western style.
This hybrid style contributes to the notion that European influence was not a unilateral diffusion of style dominating Chinese culture but rather the influx of Western aesthetics serving as an avenue for the Chinese imperial court to control and tailor what foreign fashions aligned with their taste.
McQueen, Alison. “Power and Patronage: Empress Eugénie and the Musée chinois,” in Twenty-First- Century Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Art: Essays in Honor of Gabriel P. Weisberg, ed. Petra ten- Doesschate Chu and Laurinda S. Dixon (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), 153–61.
Li, Lillian. “The Garden of Perfect Brightness—II: the European Palaces and Pavilions of the Yuanmingyuan”. ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/.../garden_perfect_brightness.../index.html.
Pirazzoli-t'Serstevens, Michèle. "The Emperor Qianlong's European Palaces," Orientations (November 1988), 61-71.
Thomas, Greg M. “Yuanming Yuan / Versailles: Intercultural Interactions between Chinese and European Palace Cultures,” Art History, 32:1 (February, 2009), 115-143.
Stone blocks, Yuanmingyuan European Gardens, http://www.ebeijing.gov.cn/feature_2/Zhongguancun2010/home/tour_experience/W020100611382020434017.jpg (accessed December 1, 2013)
Copper plate views, Yuanmingyuan European Gardens,
http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/garden_perfect_brightness_02/ymy2_gallery_1.html W020100611382020434017.jpg (accessed December 1, 2013)
Portrait of Prince Guo , Yuanmingyuan European Gardens,
http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/garden_perfect_brightness_02/ymy2_gallery_1.html (accessed December 1, 2013)
Gold Dragon Watch, Yuanmingyuan European Gardens,
http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/garden_perfect_brightness_02/ymy2_gallery_1.html http://ocw.mit.edu/ans7870/21f/21f.027/garden_perfect_brightness_02/ymy2_essay01.html (accessed December 1, 2013)