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Bronze animals' heads from Summer Palace go on display

Four precious bronze animals' heads, originally situated at the water clock fountain at Haiyantang in the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) in Beijing, will be on display at an exhibition at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum from tomorrow (January 10) until January 25.

The exhibition - "Four Bronze Animal Heads from Yuanmingyuan" - is jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Poly Art Museum, Beijing and the Association of Chinese Culture and Art of Macau, and organised by the Heritage Museum.

On display will be the bronze heads of a tiger, a monkey and an ox, along with the head of a pig that is being featured for the first time in Hong Kong. A giant picture of the Summer Palace showing the architectural features of the water clock fountain will also be showcased. The giant picture was reproduced from an engraving created by the Italian Jesuit priest Giussepe Castiglione (1688 - 1766) during Emperor Qianlong's reign.

The Summer Palace is situated in the western suburbs of Beijing. It consists of three imperial gardens - Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness), Changchunyuan (Garden of Eternal Spring) and Qichunyuan (Garden of Beautiful Spring). Construction of the palatial gardens began in the 48th year of the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1709), and went on throughout the reigns of succeeding emperors: Yongzheng, Qianlong, Jiaqing, etc. Not only was it renowned for Chinese garden art, but was also a world-famous royal museum that housed numerous treasures, cultural relics, books, paintings and art. The architectural style of the garden compound was an ingenious amalgamation of traditional Chinese garden art and the outstanding features of Western architecture.

The Haiyantang (Hall of the Calm Sea), where the water clock fountain, with 12 bronze animals representing the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac was situated, was the largest building in the Changchunyuan.

Built to house the hydraulic machines for the fountains, the Haiyantang followed the rococo style in palatial design that was popular in 18th Century Europe. Facing the west, the Haiyantang consisted of two storeys. At its centre was a vast reservoir that could store 180 tons of water for the fountains. On the first floor, there were two rooms on both sides for the hydraulic machines.

The main facade of Haiyantang had two symmetrically winding stairways on each side of the building. At the bottom of the stairs, a complex fountain system served the functions of a clock. A large fountain spouted in the central pool, and flanking the pool were 12 zodiac animals, six on each side, representing each of the two-hour periods by which the Chinese at the time divided their day and night. The heads of the 12 zodiac animals would spout a stream of water on the pool one after the other every two hours to tell the time.

The 12 zodiac animals were designed by the European missionaries serving the Qing Court at the time, and were made by court artisans. With the bodies carved out of stone and heads cast from bronze, the 12 animal statues were executed in realistic detail.

During the British-French Allied Forces' attack in 1860, the Summer Palace was burnt and ransacked. The great fountain of the Haiyantang was also destroyed and the 12 bronze heads fell into unknown hands.

In 2000, the Poly Art Museum, Beijing succeeded in bringing the heads of the monkey, ox and tiger back to their place of origin. The head of the pig was also recently acquired by the Standing Committee Member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Dr Stanley Ho. All four heads are now part of the collections of the Poly Art Museum, Beijing.

The four bronze animals' heads on display exemplify the exquisite craftsmanship of Imperial China. The engraving from Haiyantang also resembles the distinguished architectural features of the unique fountain. Visitors will also find a computer game that simulates the time-telling operation of the water clock fountain.

Located at 1 Man Lam Road in Sha Tin, the Heritage Museum is open from 10am to 6pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 10am to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays. It is closed on Tuesdays (except public holidays) and the first two days of the Lunar New Year. It closes at 5pm on Lunar New Year's Eve.

Admission is $10, with half-price concession for full-time students, people with disabilities and senior citizens aged 60 or above. Admission is free on Wednesdays.

A free shuttle-bus operates between the Sha Tin KCR Station and the Heritage Museum from 1pm to 6pm on Saturdays and from 1pm to 7pm on Sundays and public holidays.

For details about the exhibition, visit the Heritage Museum's website at . For enquiries, call 2180 8188.

Ends/Friday, January 9, 2004
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