Known as the Garden of Gardens (万园之园) for possessing extensive
collection of buildings and gardens and artworks, the Garden
of Perfect Clarity (圆明园) once covered an area of 3.5 km²,
almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden
City, and is said to be the biggest royal garden in
history and the largest museum the world ever had.
Situated in the northwest part of Beijing between
the Tsinghua and Beijing universities, it is built in the
18th and early 19th centuries on the principles of traditional Chinese
architectural theories and practices which has thousands
years of history.
Within this marvelous estate, there was a corner with
a group of European-style buildings and gardens, commonly
referred as the Western Terrace (西洋楼). Unlike the rest
of the 95 percent of the Perfect Clarity primarily constructed
with timbers and bricks, this European corner was built
of stones entirely.
Within this stone wonderland, there was an imposing building
called the Hall of Tranquil Sea (海晏堂) which is the centrepiece
of this Western domain; in front of the Tranquil Sea there
was a fan-shaped pond with a fountain in the middle; by
the pond in the both south and north shores there were
twelve alters; on the alters there were twelve figures
representing twelve Chinese
zodiac animals (生肖).
Each zodiac figure had a matching animal head made of
bronze (青铜兽首) and a human body crafted with stone, complete
with a water pipe in the hollow space of the torso.
In the traditional Chinese system, the twelve zodiacs
are not just used to mark the year, the month and the day,
but the time as well, and it was exactly what these zodiac
symbols stood by the Tranquil Sea for.
At each zodiac hour (时辰, two hours), a corresponding zodiac
figure would spew out water from its mouth. By the due
noon, 12 zodiacs spray hosed the pond all together. Thus
this set of time-conscious fountain was dubbed the “Water-power
The splendid Garden of Gardens was, sadly, looted and
then burned to the ground by the Anglo-French military
arsonists who invaded
China in 1860 in the name of teaching Chinese how to
behave in a civilised
manner. It took the barbaric Easterners 200 years to
build and destroyed by 3000 civilised Westerners in just
Gone with the blaze were countless culture relics, some
dated back to the Shang (16 - 11BC), Zhou (11 - 221BC)
and Han (221BC - 220AD) dynasties, and some are utterly
irreplaceable. Among them were the twelve bronze zodiac
It was until in recent years, four of the twelve, including Ox, Tiger, Monkey and Pig,
were bought back at auctions by China with huge price paid.
While Rat and Rabbit remain
in the French museum, the whereabouts of Dragon, Snake, Goat, Rooster and Dog are
still unknown, and may never be known.
It is under such an circumstance, the decision to reproduce
the whole set of the time-conscious zodiacs was made.
And so here they are. On 12 September, the freshly crafted
12 zodiac figures made their first presence at the historical
antique store Liuli Chang (琉璃厂).
The European corner in the Chinese
The Hall of Tranquil Sea, looking from a garden pavilion
Garden of Gardens