Old Summer Palace Zodiac Heads – marvelous works of art

old summer palace zodiac heads

The Zodiac Heads in the Old Summer Palace, also known as the Animal Heads, are a set of twelve bronze sculptures representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac. The heads were originally part of a larger fountain clock built in the 18th century by Jesuit missionaries for the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

Each of the twelve zodiac animals – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig – is represented by a beautifully crafted bronze head. The heads are approximately 1.5 meters tall and weigh around 300 kilograms each. The intricate detailing on each head is remarkable, with each animal depicted in a lifelike pose and expression.

The Zodiac Heads were originally installed in the Old Summer Palace, located in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing, which was built during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor as a retreat for the imperial family. The palace was known for its stunning gardens, lakes, and pavilions, which were designed to blend harmoniously with the natural landscape.

In 1860, during the Second Opium War, British and French troops looted and burned the Old Summer Palace, destroying many of the buildings and artworks within. The Zodiac Heads were among the treasures taken from the palace, and their whereabouts were unknown for many years.

In 2000, a private collector in France purchased the rat and rabbit heads at auction. Their sale sparked controversy and calls for their return to China, as many viewed the heads as important cultural artifacts. The Chinese government launched a campaign to recover the remaining heads, and in the years since, several have been located and returned to China.

Today, seven of the twelve Zodiac Heads are housed in the Poly Art Museum in Beijing, while the other five are in Taiwan, France, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Despite their separation, the Zodiac Heads remain an important symbol of Chinese culture and a reminder of the Old Summer Palace’s storied past. They have been the subject of countless works of art and literature, and continue to captivate audiences around the world with their beauty and historical significance.

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