The Twelve Bronze Animal Zodiac Heads of the Haiyan Hall

In the Old Summer Palace, Beijing, China, lies a ruined fountain near the Haiyan Hall site (“Haiyan” means peace for the country in Chinese). This fountain was built in the year 1759, and was destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860. The stone base of the fountain was burnt and ruined during the foreign invasion of the eight allied forces. The animal heads used to be attached to their bodies, but the bodies were ruined in the fire as well. The twelve bronze head of the animal zodiac statues (which were the decorations of the fountain) were carried away and left the country.

Figure 1–Painting of the Haiyan Hall with the statues in front (Yang Liu, 2005)

The fountain used to be a water-driven clock, designed by the Italian painter Castiglione and made by Qing Dynasty’s royal craftsmen. The twelve animal zodiacs of China include the Rat, the Cow, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Sheep, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog, and the Boar. The twelve zodiac statues were placed in front of the Haiyan Hall, in two rows facing the small pond. The statues combined Western design with Chinese carving skill, and every wrinkle and hair of the animals were carved out with amazing details. They represented a combined cultural value between the East and Western world, and the water-driven clock was also one of the milestones of the Qing Dynasty craftwork.

Because in China the twelve terrestrial branches are represented by animals, and were also the main time system that people used, these twelve animal statues were placed in their terrestrial order as a clock. Like the twelve marks on the clock we now use but only arranged horizontally, these statues essentially constitute a modern mechanical clock. For every hour, the corresponding animal statue will spit out water into the pond to tell time. The design was practical and delicate.

Figure 2–the bronze statues of the twelve animal zodiac (Unknown, 2019)

The twelve animal head statues are lost and sold as looted artifacts around the world, and now only seven of them are returned to the Old Summer Palace. They mostly ended up in auctions, and the most expensive one was traded with 69,100,000 Hong Kong dollars (8,827,450 US dollar). Recently, on November 13, the private collector and businessman Stanley Ho returned the head of the Horse zodiac to the Old Summer Palace. Before the Horse head, the Rat, the Cow, the Tiger, the Horse, the Monkey, the Rabbit, and the Boar were also found and returned by multiple means.


Additional Readings:

Terril Yue Jones

2013  Two Bronze Animal Heads, Stolen 153 Years Ago, Returned To China. Electronic Document,



2015  Bronze animal heads from Summer Palace displayed in Shanghai. Video,




2009  Chinese zodiac statues’ origins. Electronic Document,, accessed December 7, 2019.



2013  The Search for the 12 Missing Chinese Zodiac Antiquities of China. Electronic


China, accessed December 7, 2019.


China Daily

2019   Chinese Zodiac Statue Heads Home. Electronic Document,, accessed December 7, 2019.





2 thoughts on “The Twelve Bronze Animal Zodiac Heads of the Haiyan Hall

  1. You mention briefly that the animal statues were looted and sold. Has looting played a large role in archaeology? How does looting impact archaeology as a field? What is being done/has been done to combat this?

    • Looted artifacts cause the context of sites to be incomplete, and thus resulted in less information that we could get from the past cultures. Looting severely reduces the level of deduction of past societies.
      Some regulations have been made by intergovernmental organizations such as the EU and the Steering Committee for Culture, Heritage and Landscape (Unknown 2019). Regulations such as the Action Plan on Cultural Heritage had been set to promote intergovernmental cooperation and monitor the business sector to reduce looting and selling of artifacts (Unknown 2019).

      2019 Concept Note of the Council of Europe Convention on Offences Relating to Cultural Property, Within Governments and Civil Society. Electronic Document,

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