Zodiac Fountain in front of the Hall of Calm Seas


Culture and International Relations in the 18th Century


One reason the emperor decided to build the European Pavilions was his fascination with the mechanical fountains that he saw in an illustration from Europe. In fact, the European Pavilions were originally called the Fountain Palaces by people in China. Chinese gardens had used mechanical aids for pumping water or achieving special effects since the eleventh century. Since Europeans first started writing accounts of Chinese gardens in the sixteenth century, European interest in using or responding to Chinese design concepts developed rapidly along with other aspects of international cultural competition. China entered into this competitive framework in part through the mediation of Jesuits, who had designed fountains for Qianlong’s grandfather, Emperor Kangxi.

By the time of Emperor Qianlong’s reign, Europeans were already avidly imitating Chinese garden taste but, at the same time, continued to develop aspects of the Baroque style, which included elaborate and artificial mechanical contraptions. Emperor Qianlong seems to have wanted something that directly reflected European-style taste, complete with a fountain, much like in the picture he saw. We can understand the importance of printed illustrations for promoting and maintaining international competition. European imitations of Chinese gardens also were based largely on images that appeared on Chinese porcelain or even those on wallpaper! After the first group of pavilions was built that included a fountain, the emperor was so pleased that he wanted to build more and asked for something truly unique. One of the Jesuits, Michel Benoist (1715–74 AD) from France then designed a fantastic fountain that you can see in the foreground of the engraving. It consisted of a large stone shell in the center and two sets of six bronze hybrid creatures—human bodies with animal heads—arranged along each side of the pond.

What makes this fountain so special? It was Benoist’s concept of using it as a giant clock. The clock used the fountain water to measure time and was known as a “clepsydra” or “water clock.” Look closely at the hybrid animals on both sides of the fountain. There are twelve animal, which could be used for marking time. Sometimes they are called in English the Twelve Animals of the Chinese zodiac. They are different animals from those in the Western zodiac, although it is believed that both systems share a common origin going back to ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 BC. (The animals of the Western zodiac were named by the astronomer Ptolemy in the second century.)

When Benoist designed his clever fountain for Emperor Qianlong, he created an intricate mechanism for the bronze statues of the twelve zodiac animals to indicate the time of the day. When it came to its two-hour time period, each statue emitted a large plume of water from its mouth. The water spurted into the air and then down onto another fountain in the middle of the pond. Even more amazing was that at noon, all twelve animals sent forth streams of water simultaneously. If you look closely, you can see that a plume of water is coming from the mouth of the fourth animal on the right—the horse. What time of day does it indicate?

The water for the fountain came from the middle section of the Hall of the Calm Seas. It contained a large water tank lined with tin called the “Sea of Tin.” First, water was pumped from an underground conduit into the “Sea of Tin” and stored in this reservoir. It took fourteen garden workers to provide the manpower to lift the water. When the fountain was turned on, the water in the reservoir flowed down to the fountains. Can you see the pair of dolphins just before the front door in the middle of the picture? They spit forth two streams of water that fell into a series of basins along the staircase on both sides and then fell into the pond below. These basins were actually part of the water-clock. The large stone shell in the center also sent a stream of water into the pond. The pond contained yet another stone fountain in the middle from which water gushed upward.

In total, there were three major fountains in front of the various sites of the European Pavilions and many smaller ones scattered throughout. It must have created an amazing scene to hear simultaneously all the fountains in operation, especially at noon! Today, we are used to seeing fountains operating constantly because of electric pumps. But, in the past, both in China and in Europe, fountains were only turned on during special occasions. The mechanisms were not as durable as they are now and could not endure constant use. It was also difficult to keep the reservoirs filled constantly. The fountains in the European Pavilions were only turned on when the emperor decided to visit. He would let the custodians know in advance when he planned to arrive, and they would make preparations so that the water spectacle would begin just when he arrived. After he left, it was all shut down again to await his next visit.

Later, Benoist’s mechanism for filling the “Sea of Tin” with water broke. Therefore, huge pails and pulleys were used. This took two or three days and required considerable labor. Eventually, the unique Zodiac Fountain fell into disrepair, and the emperor ordered that the bronze pipes in the fountain be melted down for other uses. It is said that the mother of a later emperor found the twelve bronze animals so beautiful that she had them removed from the fountain and stored in a treasury building.

In 1860, British and French troops burned the Garden of Perfect Enlightenment, an act of destruction that can be analyzed within the context of international cultural competition at the time. During the looting, the bronze animals were stolen. In recent years, some of the heads of the animals, including the horse, pig, rat, and rabbit, have been discovered in private hands. Three other animals, the monkey, ox, and tiger, were bought at auction and can be seen in the Poly Art Museum in Beijing.

There is another important aspect to reading this image. Both the engravings and the European Pavilions themselves were created to demonstrate a new way of viewing objects in space, which was called “linear perspective” and invented in Europe during the Renaissance. Perspective derived from architecture but was applied to garden design, drawing, and painting. All the objects were arranged along a single point of view. This is done by drawing lines from a central point in the distance and making all the lines of sight radiate outward from that point (illustration). Objects are distorted somewhat so that they seem to be larger in the foreground but shrink as they approach the central point. This is called “foreshortening.” The viewer, who is standing outside the image and looking into it, has to imagine that he is standing in one spot, never moving from that one spot, a condition almost never achieved in real life. Then the viewer must align his own line of sight so that it moves toward the central point. Everything appears as if it is meant to be seen only from one point of view. Some Europeans associated this single point of view either with God’s single, true vision or with the monarch’s single, commanding vision perspective, the standard for everyone else in the kingdom. In either case, this system was allied to the notion, common both to Christianity and to early modern science, that there was only one true way to view any given problem.

Many monarchs across Eurasia at that time used gardens to display for the entire world their internationalism and sophistication, relying on the use of printed descriptions and pictures to transmit their accomplishments to the rest of the world. As a result, they learned new ways of looking at the world. Throughout the eighteenth century, European nobility slowly absorbed the Chinese concept of multiple views and a variety of perspectives. Their gardens began to increasingly use this idea as a basic principle of design. In a similar way, European perspective was recognized in China as a new and interesting way of looking at things, and so Emperor Qianlong’s European buildings display the novelty of linear perspective. The last pavilion, known as the Observatory of Distant Waters, was said to have been built just to hang a gift of some large French tapestries. The emperor also ordered that murals on the walls and ceiling be painted in the European style using the same principles of perspective. Later, the emperor put inside the buildings some of the many gifts he received from Europeans, but neither he nor anyone else ever lived there, any more than King George lived in the Kew Gardens. There was even a little hill called “Perspective Hill,” which he could ascend on horseback. From here, he could look over a long pond that symbolized an ocean and see paintings of European buildings hung on walls in the distance. The emperor could briefly experience what a street in a European city looked like without ever leaving his garden!

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