Tuesday 19 May 2015

Replica of Old Summer Palace opens despite potential IP infringement claim by Chinese authorities

A full-scale replica of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace has opened to tourists at Hengdian World Studios, a giant film studio located in Zhejiang Province also known as “Chinawood”, amidst threats of legal action by the original Old Summer Palace's administrative office "if the replica infringed intellectual property rights".

Known in Chinese as Yuánmíngyuán (the Gardens of Perfect Brightness), and originally called the Imperial Gardens, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing was destroyed in 1860 during the Second Opium War on the orders of Lord Elgin (who, incidentally, was the son of the Lord Elgin of Elgin Marbles fame).

In a written statement sent to Xinhua News Agency, the Old Summer Palace's administrative office said the complex of pavilions and gardens where the Qing Dynasty emperors resided (the Forbidden City was used for formal ceremonies) is "unique and cannot by replicated. The construction and development of the site should be planned by authoritative national organizations, and any replication of it should reach certain standards."

An aerial view of the replica Old Summer Palace (Photo: AP)
The office offered no further explanation as to how its intellectual property rights might be infringed. Xu Xinming, chief lawyer at the China Intellectual Property Lawyers association, dismissed the threat, commenting that China's intellectual property law only covers 50 years from when a work has been completed, but in any case "the original Old Summer Palace has been destroyed and the replica has nothing to do with intellectual property rights."

Whilst the threat of legal action appears to hold little weight, the incident has led to a wider debate within China about the merits of the project, with Xinhua saying that many have accused Hengdian World Studios, the world's largest outdoor film studio, of "bastardizing a site associated with patriotism."

Visitors leave after a multimedia show at Hengdian's replica Old Summer Palace (Photo: AP)

Hengdian’s studio sets include replicas of the Forbidden City and the Tian'anmen Gate Tower, and Chinese blockbusters such as Zhang Yimou’s 2002 movie “Hero” have been filmed at Hengdian. Xu Wenrong of the Hengdian Group, the conglomerate behind the project, stated: “The Chinese government has never agreed to rebuild the site because its destruction is a national shame. But generations of people have all heard about the garden, they haven't been there and they expect it to be rebuilt."

He said it was natural to charge an entrance fee to an attraction, but asserted that the replica had been built "for the benefit of the people and future generations" rather than to make money. A press officer from Beijing's cultural relics bureau responded that the replica had been built for the purposes of filmmaking and tourism. "It's fully commercial and can hardly be regarded as a decent replica because it's not situated within the Old Summer Palace."

The destruction of the Old Summer Palace is still a very sensitive issue in China today, and is frequently referenced in patriotic education campaigns. The Chinese government continues to put a lot of effort into locating and recovering the 1.5 million cultural relics it estimates were looted from the palace by British and French troops in 1860, and by an allied force including troops from the United States, Russia and Britain in 1900.

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