Beijing’s original summer palace, the Yuanmingyuan was built by the Qing Emperor Kangxi in the early eighteenth century. Once nicknamed China’s Versailles for its elegant, European-influenced design, the palace boasted the largest royal gardens in the world, containing some two hundred pavilions and temples set around a series of lakes and natural springs. Marina Warner re-creates the scene in The Dragon Empress:

Scarlet and golden halls, miradors, follies and gazebos clustered around artificial hills and lakes. Tranquil tracts of water were filled with fan-tailed goldfish with telescopic eyes, and covered with lotus and lily pads; a superabundance of flowering shrubs luxuriated in the gardens; antlered deer wandered through the grounds; ornamental ducks and rare birds nestled on the lakeside.

Today there is precious little left: in 1860, the entire complex was burnt and destroyed by British and French troops, who were ordered by the Earl of Elgin to make the imperial court “see reason” during the Opium Wars. The troops had previously spent twelve days looting the imperial treasures, many of which found their way to the Louvre and British Museum. This unedifying history is described in inflammatory terms on signs all over the park and it’s a favoured site for brooding nationalists. Still, don’t let that put you off, as the overgrown ruins are rather appealing and unusual.

There are actually three parks here, the Yuanmingyuan (Park of Perfection and Brightness), Wanchunyuan (Park of Ten Thousand Springs) and Changchunyuan (Park of Everlasting Spring), all centred around the lake, Fuhai (Sea of Happiness). All together this forms an absolutely gigantic area, but the best-preserved structures are the fountain and the Hall of Tranquillity in the northeastern section. The stone and marble fragments hint at how fascinating the original must once have been, with its marriage of European Rococo decoration and Chinese motifs.

Travel offers; book through Rough Guides

China features

The latest articles, galleries, quizzes and videos.

An expert's guide: the best area to stay in Hong Kong

An expert's guide: the best area to stay in Hong Kong

Hong Kong floats between old China and the west; its futuristic harbour has become one of Asia's most famous views but you'll also find pockets of traditiona…

28 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors insert_drive_file Article
26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

26 awe-inspiring architectural wonders

From ancient temples to hyper-modern skyscrapers, these are just a few of the world's most incredible architectural wonders. Whether you're looking to wander l…

01 Feb 2017 • Rough Guides Editors camera_alt Gallery
China travel tips: 8 things you need to know before you go

China travel tips: 8 things you need to know before you go

Even 20 years ago China was not a conventional tourist destination. Despite the allure of its beautiful landscapes and history-filled cities, politics, poverty,…

13 Jan 2017 • Simon Frank insert_drive_file Article
View more featureschevron_right

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month

Join over 60,000 subscribers and get travel tips, competitions and more every month