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Not flattered by imitation

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  • A huge pagoda, top, rises above the New Yuanmingyuan, a newly built replica of Beijing’s Old Summer Palace in Hengdian township of Dongyang city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. The original palace and grounds were looted and destroyed by French and British forces in 1860. (Chinatopix Via AP)
    Wang Daocheng, a former professor at Renmin University’s Qing History Institute browses a book about rebuilding the Old Summer Palace at his house in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
    Visitors linger at the pagoda. (AP Photo)

BEIJING » China already has its own copies of London’s Tower Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. Now a life-size model by a film studio of one of the country’s own historical attractions — the Old Summer Palace — has ruffled the bosses of the original garden of emperors.

Hengdian Studios in Zhejiang province is building a $5 billion film set of the 1.35-square-mile palace grounds in Beijing to appear as they were before they were razed and left in ruins by foreign forces more than 150 years ago.

While the overseers of the original site have belittled the new one as a sell-out to tourism, it has won praise from some historians for preserving China’s heritage.

Part theme park, part film set, the still-under-construction attraction opened to the public May 10 with an entrance fee of 280 yuan ($46). It is slated to be finished next year by Hengdian, one of the world’s largest film studios, which already has replicas of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Gate.Performers in dynastic costumes carrying a gong marched under a traditional Chinese gate that opened onto a walkway with red buildings. One employee was dressed as an emperor. Elsewhere, people rested and chatted in pavilions by the water. From a higher vantage point, they took photos in front of a view of buildings standing in rows with gray roofs with flying eaves, white walls and red pillars.

The attraction joins the ranks of other famous landmarks that have appeared in China. The eastern city of Suzhou has built bridges to look like the Sydney Harbor Bridge, among others. In nearby Hangzhou city, there are replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Elysees. Last year a copy of the Great Sphinx of Giza in Hebei province built by a film company raised the ire of the Egyp­tian government.

The official Xinhua News Agency reported last month that the Old Summer Palace’s administrative office said the cultural heritage site was unique and could not be replicated, and that the site was prepared to take legal action if its intellectual property rights were violated. It wasn’t clear what rights it was referring to, and the office declined to comment.

Xu Xinming, chief lawyer at the China Intellectual Property Lawyers association, which offers legal advice, said China’s intellectual property law covers only 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."

The palace replica has raised a debate within China about the merits of the project, with Xinhua saying that many have accused it of "bastardizing a site associated with patriotism."

French and British troops burned down the Old Summer Palace in 1860. China’s Communist Party-led government considers its ruins a remembrance of historical humiliation at the hands of foreign forces, and a sign of how the country has moved on under the party’s rule.

The man running the replica project, Xu Wenrong, retired chairman of Hengdian Group, dismissed the criticisms at a news conference May 9.

The Chinese government has never agreed to rebuild the site because its destruction is a "national shame," said Xu. "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 is natural to charge an entrance fee to an attraction but that they had built the replica "for the benefit of the people and future generations" rather than to make money.

He said the construction was based on the original design plans for the Old Summer Palace, which was built beginning in the 18th century and given as a gift by Emperor Kangxi to his son. Subsequent emperors also used and expanded the imperial gardens, and the site became China’s second political center after the Forbidden City.

A press officer from Beijing’s cultural relics bureau said the new site 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, either," said the press officer, who would give only his surname, Yin.

Wang Daocheng, a former professor at Renmin University’s Qing History Institute, said he had no problem with Hengdian building a replica, and that the two sites could be complementary.

"The Old Summer Palace represents the essence of Chinese traditional culture. Why can’t we rebuild it?" he said. "There is nothing left in the Old Summer Palace apart from ruins, and if people can’t see anything about the glorious architecture and gardens, then how can you educate the public?"

On a recent warm day, tourists thronged the paths in the original site in northern Beijing, filled with lakes framed by thick rows of bright flowers and overhanging trees. In the eastern part of the park, they paid 15 yuan ($2.50) extra to visit the most visible ruins, consisting of big pieces of light-gray rubble and a handful of Roman columns.

Businessman Liu Yaming, 37, using a selfie stick to take a photo of himself among the ruins, said rebuilding the site showed "a kind of ignorance of our national humiliation."

"Some things just can’t be rebuilt once they are gone," he said. "As a historical site, we’d better give it the respect it deserves."

AP videojournalists Peng Peng in Beijing and Paul Traynor in Hengdian, and researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.

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