In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the British and French expeditionary forces looted the Old Summer Palace. Later, on October 18 1860, the British general Elgin - with protestations from the French (who in fact had began the looting) - gave the order to set fire to the huge complex which burned to the ground.
It took 3,500 British troops to set the entire place ablaze and it took three whole days to burn. General Elgin, later Lord Elgin (James Bruce 1811-1863), was the son of the famous British lover of Greek art who stole the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens.
Only the European-style palaces survived the fire because, unlike the Chinese-style structures, they were made of stone. Some stone ruins still stand on the site today. This is maybe why unknowing visitors sometimes incorrectly assume that the Old Summer Palace consisted only of European style buildings.
A few chinese style buildings in the outlying Elegant Spring Garden also survived the fire. The imperial court restored these buildings and intended to rebuild the whole complex of the Imperial Gardens, but it was impossible to muster the money and resources for such an immense task due to the difficult situation of China at the time.
However, in 1900, those buildings that had partly survived or been restored were burnt for good by the Western expeditionary forces sent to quell the Boxer Rebellion. Many priceless artifacts were plundered and made their way to museums and private collections in Europe.
The ruins were further plundered by the warlords of the early republican period and further destruction of the ruins took place during the Cutural Revolution. After all this destruction, what was left was truely just an empty shell.
Empress dowager CiXi later directed the forming of YiHeYuan (Garden of Nurtured Harmony), into a new Summer Palace, near to the Old Summer Palace, but on a smaller scale.
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