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Jonathan Clements on Jackie Chan and the Garden of Gardens

Last year saw the publication of a fascinating exercise in history, Liu Yang’s book Who Collects the Yuanming Yuan. An expensive coffee-table tome, it whisks the reader all around the world, from corporation foyers to museum galleries to the lounges of private collectors, in search of a very particular kind of antique. The Yuanming Yuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness, was an imperial pleasure garden looted by European troops during the Second Opium War. Once known as the Garden of Gardens, its palaces were razed to the ground and its priceless antiquities broken up and carried off by jeering soldiers. Liu’s book is a guide to a place that no longer exists, reconstructing its former glory with glimpses of shattered fragments, bits of tile, broken pots and decapitated statuary scattered all over the globe.

A witness to the original destruction, Reverend R.J.L. McGhee wrote: “Out burst a hundred flames, the smoke obscures the sun, and temples, palaces, buildings and all, hallowed by age, if age can be hallow, and by beauty, if it can make sacred, are swept to destruction. A pang of sorrow seizes upon you… No eye will ever gaze on those buildings… records of by-gone skill and taste, of which the world contains not the like. You have seen them once and for ever… man cannot reproduce them.”

But Jackie Chan can. Jackie Chan, armed with state of the art scanning gloves hotlinked to a state-of-the-art 3D printer, can knock out as many replicas as you want. It’s part of his cunning scheme in his movie Chinese Zodiac, to steal, or as his partners-in-crime carefully re-word, retrieve these antiquities and restore them to their rightful home in China.

Jackie Chan’s films have often smuggled in the odd political nudge and wink behind the tomfoolery, but Chinese Zodiac puts it all front and centre. Rather nobly, it shies away from issues of race or one-sided nationalism, making greed itself the great unifier – ensuring that Europeans and Chinese can be found on both sides of the battle. Its baddies are uncouth, uncaring carpetbaggers, prepared to destroy valuable antiques in order to increase the value of those that they still own – itself an old Chinese trick, and the reason so many priceless stone tablets were defaced after rubbings were taken from them. Meanwhile, its good guys are not above the odd white lie, happy to switch genuine antiques for realistic facsimiles and hoping that nobody will notice – probably a touchy subject at the Victoria & Albert Museum at the moment.

Made at a time when China is flexing its political muscles, and inspired by the embarrassing charade of Chinese millionaires having to buy back their country’s looted relics on the international antiques market, Chinese Zodiac does not shy away from accusing Europeans of colonial pilfering, but nor does it redact the background of the destruction of the site. As Jackie politely reminds his shrill companion Coco (Yao Xing Tong), the Yuanming Yuan was not looted on a whim, but destroyed in retaliation for the death of British prisoners in Chinese custody.

The story revolves around a set of genuine artefacts, the 12 bronze animal heads of the Chinese zodiac, which once adorned the Ocean Banquet Hall on the site. Only seven of them have been retrieved in the real world, bought for millions on the art circuit, or in two cases, donated to the Chinese nation by the French millionaire Francois Pinault. The locations of the others remain a mystery, and one which soon lures Chan’s character JC (it is implied, the same JC who hunted treasure in the Indiana Jones-inspired Armour of God and Operation Condor) in a search for a wrecked French warship on a pirate-infested south-sea island. Publicity in China misleadingly highlighted the claim that it was “Jackie Chan’s last movie,” which the star himself has vehemently denied. However, since he is now sixty years old, it is unlikely that he will ever do quite as many of his own stunts again, or be quite so physical. This is, it is reasonable to expect, probably the last time you can expect to see him roller skating down a hillside being pursued by Russian special-forces on motor bikes, or trying to parascend out of a maze while being pursued by French guard-dogs, or fighting goons in freefall above a volcano… well, you get the idea.

The ruins of the Yuanming Yuan are still to be found in Beijing, a brief stroll from the high-tech district of Zhongguancun. I went there and wandered in bright sunshine among the wisterias and the willows, across little bridges with moon-shaped arches, and along winding garden pathways. The ruins seemed carefully cultivated. Several of the lumps of fallen blocks, which I examined up close, turned out to be poured concrete – in China, even the ruins can be fakes. Meanwhile, there were lovely views across the mirror-still lake (which itself covered acres and acres), and the hills behind. I was sure, at moments, I could see the Great Wall snaking across the mountain tops in the distance, but I may have imagined it.

After an hour, I started to realise that it was all a bit samey. As I walked across another little moon-arch bridge, towards yet another willow-pattern copse of wisteria, I was to all intents and purposes, completely lost. Yet another temple, yet another ruin, yet another bonsai bridge over a little pond, it was all the bloody same. I’d already lapped myself and was walking around the same lake again, without realising.

Chinese Zodiac, starring Jackie Chan, is out now in the US, and will be released on UK DVD and Blu-ray by Universal Pictures on 2nd June.

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