Now, as China prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Communist revolution, and struggles to find a capitalist road into the next century, the garden is to be restored. It is as if, on this tiny 4,000 square metre site, the vast country that once tried to destroy its own past is at last rediscovering it.
The Hong Kong-based China Heritage Fund has stumped up $4m (pounds 2.6m) to restore the garden, constructed in 1740, and its pavilions. Mao's Red Guards spent much of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution crushing anything and anyone with aspirations to artistic endeavour. That included Peking's craftsmen who, even if they did survive, were unable to pass their skills on to apprentices. But the administration of the Forbidden City can now pull a few master craftsmen out of retirement and start a restoration.
"Destroying cultural relics is easy," said Ronnie Chan, the fund's chairman. "It hardly takes any time. But restoring is another matter, which also highlights China's history and helps to explain a little of what happened to this nation."
All that remains inside the Imperial red walls are cracked marble waterways and the stone pillar bases of the nine treasure-filled pavilions that had made up the tranquil world of Established Happiness. Gone are the gingko, white-barked pine and bamboo copses that once rustled in the breeze, and the softly flowing streams used to cool wine cups in the summer. Gone is the balcony from where the Dowager Empress used to gaze at the summer clouds. Also gone are the eunuchs and concubines who struggled to get their hands on imperial spoils.
According to Zhang Ke-gui, director of the Palace Museum's ancient architectural department, it was this struggle that probably destroyed the garden, as the eunuchs were spiriting jewellery, ceramics and jadeware out of the pavilions to sell to the highest bidder.
"Just before the fire, the emperor Pu Yi realised his treasures were disappearing and ordered an inventory check," said Mr Chan. "My guess is that the thieves covered their tracks by setting the place alight."
The restorers have a fair idea of how to rebuild it, as the north-eastern garden of the Forbidden City was modelled after the Palace of Established Happiness and remains basically intact to this day. John Sanday, the project's leading consultant, who previously worked on restoration of the Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia, said all rebuilding on the three-year project would be on traditional lines, so bricks and tiles would be handmade, and lacquers mixed from brick dust, pig's blood and flax.
Public interest in the project means the garden may be opened at various stages of restoration, and Mr Chan is considering a project where the process of reconstruction is as big a crowd-puller as the gardens themselves.
But the emphasis will be on the buildings in the garden and not the plants. Since the Chinese sage Confucius dismissed horticulture as "something that should be left to gardeners" more than two millenniums ago, planting design has rarely been given the status of the structural design of the garden.
The Cultural Revolution condemned horticulture as a bourgeois affectation. But Peking's new leadership, on the lookout for ways of increasing foreign investment, recently dedicated its first world exposition to the art of horticulture. As China has more native flowering plants than Europe and North America combined, Peking is looking to draw in world expertise in bio-technology, medical research and flower production.
It may also have come to accept, as Confucius might have said, that you can only build the future on a past that is understood and appreciated.Reuse content