The actual history of Yuan Ming Yuan is fascinating. Its name translates to Garden of Perfect Brightness but the reason it’s mostly referred to as the Old Summer Palace is that there is a New Summer Palace so you can’t go around confusing the two. The Emperor really did summer there. It’s actually Yuan (round, or possibly in this iteration “perfect”) Ming (bright) Yuan (garden). It was the ultimate of its kind at the time it was built so it is also known as the Garden of Gardens.
(The new Summer Palace is beautiful, on a lake, with temples and of course the prime example of military waste, the cement warship).
Yuan Ming Yuan is officially a public park and tourist destination. A fifty cent ticket admits you to a fifty to one hundred acre sprawl of lakes, pagodas, vending-booths with candy and ice cream for kids, gardens and carved marble bridges.
Fa Zi’s house is in the lake district beyond where the fence to the park proper ends, but the centerpiece of the Old Summer Palace is the ruins of the Main Palace.
Once a magnificent Mandarin residence done up in Greco-Roman colonnades, it’s now just a few immense toppled slabs of marble behind a plaque that reads rather snidely something like, “Yuan Ming Yuan stands as another monument to Chinese humiliation at the hands of a joint European invading armies which we all blame to this day.”
Seems that a little spat over trade in the 1700’s caused the English
commander Peephole to total the greatest early Sino-European joint venture in history in order to make the statement that Chinese-invented gunpowder had been put to ingenious use by Westerners.
This is one of the reasons why humiliation by outsiders is a sore point for most Chinese, and these are the real ghosts which still haunt the place.
Basically, it’s been a couple of bad centuries for China in terms of living with those pesky foreigners.
What with the Opium Wars fought against Great Britain in the Nineteenth century, several Japanese invasions and torture experiments in the early 20th, a Communist takeover to drive out the Japanese in the ‘40’s, China has gone through a lot of war and strife.
Then after the wars, there was a wild Communist-led drive to build the country’s infrastructure which resulted in fast growth, wasted resources, and then famine. Then there was a Korean War, a riotous Cultural Revolution led by the meglo-maniacal Chairman Mao, the loss of Taiwan, the annexing of Tibet, a melee with VietNam, and lastly a capitalistic liberalization under the supervision of Deng Xao Peng and his successor Jiang Zemin.
So the country that calls itself Zhong Guo (literally, The Middle Kingdom) and still sees itself as the center of the civilized world has had better things to do, really, than learn how to stuff a wild bikini. Unless it was to stuff that bikini full of bullets.
Having been mostly on the ropes last century, they now think that maybe it was just a case of playing rope-a-dope. Soon the world will have to give them back their seat at the head of the table when it seems time for them to rise again from the mat. At least that’s the way they see it.
But what took place last century or two… it still hurts a little bit. The sacking of the Summer Palace was several hundred years ago but for many the embarrassment is still as fresh as the paint on the park’s plaques.
Still, the place is unique to Beijing and China as well as the world in that it was truly a historical meeting place where East and West came together to build something magnificent together. Fa Zi carries on the tradition.
Very few foreigners in fact were ever admitted into the country during the time of the great Imperial Courts of the 1700’s, but for one brief moment the Emperor Zhi Xi welcomed enough of them to jointly build a Romanesqe pleasure palace of immense proportions for his summer retreat. Seventy years later it was ground to dust
by a European army.
So in the middle of that history lived Fa Zi, belting out the strange sqwak of American rock and roll infused with year and years of Chinese history. Yes, ghosts still haunted this place, because every time Fa Zi picked up his guitar and plugged in his Marshall amp he seemed to raise the dead with the Bob Marley he belted out. (The cover version of “Stir It Up” below is fairly loose and low-fi, with Kevin doing some made up vocals about getting the Guo Mao management to pay up as well as lifting a quote from an old Son of Berserk rap song.)
In the afternoons sometimes Fa Zi and his friends climb up on the leftover parapets of the original palace, now just mud edifices about ten feet high, and survey the lakes around the farm. I start to imagine the that fire-flys which peep out of the trees at night are really just the spirits of perished royalty who can’t give up the beauty of the place.
Fa Zi is like one of those Imperials, albeit one who’s spirit is drawn to sing Van Morrison to his wife as they dangle their feet in the park’s Palace Lake near the opening in the fence they know about.
During the summers that’s what Fa Zi and his wife do almost every afternoon… they get out their tennis rackets and the acoustic Martin guitar and go down to the marble bridge on the garden lake.
Fa Zi sings and his wife lies back on the dock and listens proudly to her husband as the sun sets.
People in two-seater paddle boats on the lake wave to him. One day, because they have invited me along, he sings “Country Roads” by John Denver (another white-bread American folkie that the Communists considered tame enough to be allowed in stores) and we chorus together, “Take me home to the place where I belong”.
And though the place where Fa Zi belongs is not West Virginia, it’s the Yuan Ming Yuan Arts Colony near the Old Summer Palace of Beijing, I can see how it seems just like home to sing that song anyway, country roads, mountain mommas and all.