The Garden of Perfect Brightness—3 Destruction, Looting, and Me


While the treasures of the Yuanmingyuan were widely distributed among European art collections, the ruins of the European palaces—which had been made of stone, marble, and sturdy materials—mostly remained in recognizable form after 1860. The ruins were often visited by Western residents of Beijing on outings. They were frequently photographed in the 1870s, when photography became more widespread than it had been in the 1860s.

In the succeeding decades, the site was continually plundered for its raw materials and remaining artifacts. During the Boxer uprising and the siege of Beijing in 1900 to 1901, Western troops participated in further plunder. But much of the subsequent looting and damage was the work of local Chinese vandals, who sold antiquities in the local markets. [11] Photographs show how the ruins of the European palaces diminished in scale over the years; distinguished in this regard is a run of photos taken in 1873 by Ernst Ohlmer (1847–1927), a German customs official. [12]
Ernst Ohlmer’s 1873 Photos of the Ruins

In the decade following the torching of the Yuanmingyuan the area was officially off-limits, but it was difficult for the eunuchs and watchmen to secure. Looting and outbreaks of fire contributed to the decay of the garden. Ernst Ohlmer, a young German clerk, was discovered in one of the buildings and, as he had not stolen anything, was pardoned. In 1873, just 13 years after the sack, Ohlmer photographed the ruins of the European palaces, leaving the earliest known visual record of the devastated site. Although the buildings are damaged and the grounds overgrown with weeds, the basic architecture remains recognizable. The following 12 glass negatives were the source of a 2010 exhibition at Beijing's China Millennium Monument.

Xieqiqu, south façade
Built in 1751, this was the first pavilion in the Xiyanglou.
Depicted in Engraving 1.

This Xieqiqu panorama shows the lake in front overgrown with weeds.

Xieqiqu, Music Pavilion
Not depicted in the 20 engravings, the Music Pavilion overlooked the lake and was connected by a bridge to the main part of the Xieqiqu.

Xieqiqu, eastern side of the main building
The ornamentation on this imposing Western structure had Chinese elements. The Music Pavilion is visible in the back left. Depicted in Engraving 3.

Pavilion Harmonizing Surprise and Delight, Xieqiqu 諧奇趣