History and Culture

It's summer again at the palace

2017-06-17 11:47:00 (Beijing Time)         China Daily

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A digital restoration of the northern section of Xieqiqu (harmonious wonder). (Photo provided to China Daily)

Fifteen years ago, He Yan, an architecture student, was visiting the Old Summer Palace in Beijing with her academic supervisor, Guo Daiheng, of the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University.

Guo, 66, riding a bicycle through the park, pointed into the distance and told her 23-year-old protegee: "This is Jiuzhou Qingyan, and that is Tianran Tuhua, two palace complexes of the Old Summer Palace."

Anyone who had overheard the professor may well have thought she was hallucinating, for at that time the park was nothing but wasteland, and the buildings of which she spoke had been laid waste 142 years earlier.

However, Guo's expertise in matters to do with the Old Summer Palace allowed her to effortlessly draw on her mind's eye to project exactly where the buildings had once stood.

The Emperor Kang Xi, the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), started building the imperial park in 1709, and it was expanded by his two successors, Emperor Yong Zheng and Emperor Qian Long. With constant construction over a century, the park eventually covered more than 3.33 square kilometers, the area of 600 soccer fields, and was home to more than 1,000 palaces and more than 100 viewing spots.

The Old Summer Palace, designed and supervised by emperors themselves and built by the most talented and skilled workers, artisans and artists in ancient China, was the pinnacle of achievement in Chinese traditional parks, Guo says.

The palace's name is a little misleading, for emperors and their families did not just reside there during summer. In fact it was in the Old Summer Palace rather than the Forbidden City that emperors spent most of their time as they managed the country, met high-level officials and foreign ambassadors and celebrated festivals.

In the middle of the Qing Dynasty, Jiuzhou Qingyan was the residence of emperors, empresses and concubines. Tianran Tuhua, literally meaning a natural painting, one of the 40 top beauty spots in the Old Summer Palace, was renowned for its bamboo.

Though Guo has long been renowned for her expertise, He was astonished at how the professor could envision in a field of weeds the splendid palaces that the allied army of Britain and France looted and burned down in 1860.

Now technology is making Guo's feat look rather simple. Anyone visiting the Old Summer Palace can see the original look of buildings on the screen of an iPad that can be hired in the park. The iPad has an app installed that was developed by Beijing Re-Yuanmingyuan Company Limited. He Yan is the director of Tsinghua Heritage Institute for Digitalization.

Earlier this year Guo announced at Tsinghua University that her team had completed the research and development of a prog program called Digital Yuanmingyuan. More than 80 people spent 15 years on improving protection of the cultural heritage of the Old Summer Palace, drawing on more than 10,000 archives, completing 4,000 design drawings of the architecture, and making 2,000 digital models of the buildings.

Guo has been doing research on the Old Summer Palace for many years. In 1960 she graduated from Tsinghua University. Before her lay a career building houses, but she was instead assigned to teach and study ancient architecture and gardens at Tsinghua University.