Discuss as:

Remaking China's 'Garden of Perfect Splendor'

By Adrienne Mong, NBC News Producer

Imagine Versailles plundered and razed to the ground by marauding invaders. 

Then imagine, some hundred years later, a Donald Trump-like figure announcing that he will build an exact, full-scale replica of Versailles... not in its original location – but hundreds of miles away. All for the princely sum of $3 billion.

Why, you might ask, would anyone do such a thing?

Image: The original Yuanmingyuan
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
The original Yuanmingyuan -- so thoroughly destroyed that decades later even the flowers are fake.

Well, in China, a lot of people are wondering the same thing about a plan to rebuild the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, once hailed as the Versailles of the East.

'The Garden of Perfect Splendor'

A complex of imperial gardens and buildings located in Beijing's far northwest, Yuanmingyuan is one of the capital's beloved historic sites. Its name in Chinese means "Garden of Perfect Splendor," some fans also called it the Garden of all Chinese Gardens.

Built largely during the 18th century and under the supervision of five Qing emperors, Yuanmingyuan covers 865 acres. It was famed not just for its beautiful grounds replete with waterways, hills, and scenic landscapes but also for its elegant mix of imperial palaces, pavilions, and European buildings, featuring the work of artisans from around the world.

But Yuanmingyuan was sacked in 1860 by English and French troops during the second Opium War - an act condemned by French writer Victor Hugo, who deemed the complex more impressive than Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. If that wasn't bad enough, it was sacked again in 1900.

In the process, priceless artifacts and works of art were whisked away from Yuanmingyuan's grounds to museums and private collections across Europe. 

The episode has often been cast as a national humiliation, in which foreign imperialists bested the decrepit Qing regime to occupy Chinese cities and ports.

Since then, Yuanmingyuan has limped through the nation's post-revolutionary stages, rebuilt piecemeal through the collective efforts of local officials, historians, and preservationists.

Not so anymore.

Patriotism and profit

Enter a farmer-turned-millionaire by the name of Xu Wenrong, who has decided he will restore the Chinese people's honor through profit. 

He wants to build an entirely new Yuanmingyuan in his regional home of Zhejiang province, hundreds of miles away from the original site.           

"[T]he destruction of Yuanmingyuan Garden caused by the Anglo-French allied forces is a humiliation to both our country and our nationality," said Xu.  "To reconstruct a new Yuanmingyuan Garden is to cleanse this insult to our country and our people."

The pint-sized 73-year-old Xu isn't your seemingly everyday patriot. As founder of the privately-held Hengdian Group, he transformed acres of farmland in the central province of Zhejiang into Asia's biggest movie studio, often referred to as Chinawood. 

The studio and its 13 back lots in Hengdian – which includes a full-size replica of the Forbidden City – also function as a giant theme park. In 2006, Hengdian attracted 4.65 million visitors.  A new and improved Yuanmingyuan would expand Xu's stable of tourist attractions.

Image: A full-scale replica of the Forbidden City in Hengdian, Zhejiang Province.<br />
Adrienne Mong / NBC News
A full-scale replica of the Forbidden City in Hengdian, Zhejiang Province.

Managing the opposition

But his project, which would take five years to build and would rely on donations from the public as well as private investment, hasn't inspired the same kind of patriotic fervor amongst ordinary Chinese.  If anything, it has sparked a lively debate online and in local newspapers. 

Approval has come from some corners – including local Communist Party officials – but opposition has been louder. The China Daily newspaper quoted an historian as saying, "The remnants of the old ruins are witnesses to a specific period of history, there is no value in recreating them elsewhere."  

Other naysayers have argued an extravagant theme park would be a colossal waste of money, wondering why Xu doesn't just restore the original Yuanmingyuan in Beijing. Some have even suggested the whole plan is a scam, while the Guangzhou Daily noted that China's 2,500-plus theme parks overwhelmingly lose money.

The Hengdian Group has been working hard to deflect criticism.  On Monday, it rolled out a lavish press conference at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse (normally home to visiting foreign dignitaries) - both to unveil project details and to kick off its fundraising drive.

The press kit they handed out was a briefcase stuffed with fancy project brochures, a feasibility study, a DVD with computer-generated images of the new Yuanmingyuang, newspaper clippings praising the project, a 400-page historical tome on its destruction in 1860, and another 400-page book of essays debating the construction plan.

And before a capacity crowd of local journalists, Xu and his partners read speeches detailing the reasons why the idea of recreating an exact replica of Yuanmingyuang was a good one – citing good business sense, environmental protection, and cultural pride. 

But it was a personal note that struck a chord for me. As Xu told the crowd, "I am a farmer turned entrepreneur. In my opinion, farmers are great. It is the laboring people who created the world and history."

Looking around Beijing now in the midst of a building frenzy – powered by millions of migrant workers who have come from China's rural hinterlands – one can see his point. Perhaps a glitzy version of Yuanmingyuan would capture just perfectly the country's rapid transformation from old to new.