Yuanmingyuan — a Disneyland for one person

The Forbidden Palace in the center of Beijing was not where the Chinese emperors lived. Rather, for most of the Qing dynasty the emperors spent most of their time at Yuanmingyuan, an enclosed palace compound north-west of the capital. Yuanmingyuan consisted of a wealth of separate buildings — palaces, temples, pagodas, pavilions, libraries and tea-houses — set in a series of gardens which were connected through meandering paths and waterways. More than anything Yuanmingyuan resembled a theme park, not too different from Disneyland. At Yuanmingyuan too there were environments designed to transport the visitor to other places. There were rural scenes with rice paddies depicting the lives of Chinese peasants, gardens copied from Suzhou and Hangzhou, replicas of temples from Tibet, street-scenes from Beijing, and even a set of European-style palaces. Instead of Disneyland’s annual 15 million plus visitors, however, Yuanmingyuan was intended for the amusement of only one man — the emperor of China, his women, children and the eunuch courtiers who attended to their needs.

Yuanmingyuan, much as Disneyland, was an idealized environment which expressed a particular view of the world. Walking through, or rowing around, his gardens the emperor could experience times past and times future, exotic animals, flora and fauna, high mountains, oceans, the countryside and the city, but also the world of learning and culture. And the emperor was the undisputed ruler of the whole thing. Everything obeyed his will and everything was easy for him to manipulate. This was not least the case since the architects, much as the architects at Disneyland, made frequent use of models and miniaturization. Many of the buildings were built in slightly smaller versions than the originals, and even many of the trees, using bonsai techniques, were smaller than the real thing. They also relied heavily on mechanical devices. There were mechanical birds that could flap their wings, and fountains that sprayed water at designated hours. In addition the emperor had a vast collection of mechanical gadgets — clocks, astronomical instruments, music boxes, but also toys like violin-playing monkeys, pecking hens, and waltzing rope-dancers. Yuanmingyuan was a play-house world.

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