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Although much is rightly made of the rise of gardens, of their building and blossoming, and of the progressive possibilities of time inherent in the landscape, in their decay, gardens and their ruins are perhaps even more poetic, the inevitable promise of their ephemerality finally realized. Decline is no less fruitful a state for narrative than growth, of course, and the last stages of gardens not only reflect, but may eventually come to define the fallen fortunes of their owners.

This paper explores the ‘post-histories’ and narratives of ruin at the Mountain Estate to Escape the Heat (Bishu shanzhuang), the Qing imperial park-palace in Chengde. Constructed over nearly the entire eighteenth century, for emperors and a global array of guests the massive grounds conveyed the full glory of Pax Manjurica. Yet following the Jiaqing emperor’s death there in 1820, the site fell largely into disuse — or, more accurately, the terms of its use, both literal and mnemonic, changed. Coming after the garden’s heyday, this period has largely been ignored, and yet the landscape has persisted through decay, ruin, and, most recently, reconstruction.

From the late Qing court to the contemporary People’s state, from Japanese colonial officials to European adventurers and American tourists, nearly two centuries of visitors and occupants have encountered the site, often interweaving their own narratives and imaginations with those found in situ. Focusing on a series of photographs and films, exhibitions, and first-hand accounts from the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries, this paper explores how photography, publishing, and celebrity mediated the ongoing formation and deployment of competing colonialist and imperial narratives through the remains of a site that was never truly abandoned.

Stephen Whiteman is Reader in the Art and Architecture of China at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, where his research and teaching focus on the visual and spatial cultures of early modern East and Southeast Asia. Twice recipient of the John Brinckerhoff Jackson Prize in landscape studies, he is author and editor of five books, including Where Dragon Veins Meet: The Kangxi Emperor and His Estate at Rehe (2020) and Landscape and Authority in the Early Modern World (2023). Current projects include a collective, site-based research initiative based in Hue, Vietnam, Penang, Malaysia, and Yangon, Myanmar; deep modelling of the experience of landscape and space in premodern Chinese gardens through interactive, immersive technologies; and a visual and material history of mapping in China over the last millennium.

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