The Summer Palace, in the Haidian District, northwest of central Beijing, is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world, and the largest of its kind still in existence in modern China. It’s hardly surprising that, during the hot Beijing summers, the Imperial Family preferred the beautiful gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City. Dowager Empress Cixi took up permanent residence here for a time, giving rise to some wonderful tales of extravagance and excess.
Although only a short drive (15 km) from central Beijing it seems like another world.
UNESCO has this to say of the Summer Palace: “…a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.”
Birdview of Summer Palace
Summer Palace in the Sunset
Justification for Inscription
Criterion i: The Summer Palace in Beijing is an outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole.
Criterion ii: The Summer Palace epitomizes the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design, which played a key role in the development of this cultural form throughout the East.
Criterion iii: The imperial Chinese garden, illustrated by the Summer Palace, is a potent symbol of one of the major world civilizations.
The Chinese call it Yihe Yuan (Garden of Restful Peace), and the landscaped gardens, temples and pavilions were designed to achieve harmony with nature, to soothe and please the eye. The park spreads across the low hills, including Longevity Hill, around Kunming Lake, and was is divided into three main zones (administration, living, and relaxation). The wonderful buildings and courtyards wander beside the lake, along the waterways and climb the low slopes of the hillside. The arched bridges, pretty promenades, decorated ‘corridors’ and breezeways all lead visitors through ever-changing views and scenery. Here the marvelous marble boat, there an old theatre, over there an island reached by small wooden boat, and in the distance the hills, with a temple on the hillside, framed by dark trees. Small wonder that UNESCO added this 300 hectare site to the World Heritage List in 1998.
Many of the buildings have been meticulously restored, and maintenance and restoration activities are ongoing. The current projects are due for completion in 2010, which means that from time to time one building or another may be temporarily closed to the public.
Most people find they spend at least half a day here, there’s so much to see and enjoy in the gardens, buildings and waterways. It does involve plenty of walking, so wear comfortable shoes and protection from the weather (sun or rain) and be prepared to be enchanted. There are many pleasant spots along the way to pause and enjoy this much-loved summer retreat, as well as places selling cool drinks and snacks. You can take a 10 minute boat-ride to see an island temple, sit and watch a traditional Chinese performance in the restored theatre (one of the three great traditional theatres in China), or explore the recreated traditional shops by the river, (the story goes that former Emperors, or their concubines, used to enjoy 'pretend-shopping'), enjoy the different buildings and courtyards, or just take in the views from one of the many vantage points.
The park falls naturally into several sections, each with its own distinct character. The palace buildings where Dowager Empress Cixi and Emperor Guangxu used to stay, and also to conduct the business of government, are in the Court area, near the East Palace Gate, and include a number of Halls, courtyards and displays. From here the paths run beside the lake (which takes up about 75% of the park), under shady trees or along the roofed breezeway known as the ‘Long Corridor’, with its magnificently painted ceilings. Bridges, island, boats, willows, lotus and attractive landscaping make this a pleasant place to soak up the atmosphere and take in the longer views.
Beside the lakeside paths the land rises to Longevity Hill, dotted with some superb Halls and temples and wonderfully decorated Gates. The energetic can climb the hill to the Buddhist Temple overlooking the entire area. The waterside path continues across bridges, past boathouses and the amazing Marble Boat, to an area of tranquil gardens, hillocks and winding paths. In this area the ‘Suzhou Market Street’ also recreates traditional riverside shops, many of which can only be reached by boat. The Summer Palace is one of the lovelier spots in Beijing. Not all the buildings are open to the public, but many are, and the others continue to enhance the park with their design and decoration, nestled into the landscape.
A Chequered History
The gardens have twice been ransacked and restored. They were first developed by the Jin Emperors during the early 12th century. A hundred years later Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) further enlarged the lake, adding more canals to bring water from the western hills to improve Beijing’s water supply.
Over the following centuries dynasties rose and fell while successive Emperors continued to improve the Qingyi (Clear Ripples) Garden.
In 1750, one of the great Emperors of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, Qianlong, summoned the best designers and landscapers in China to create what was to become one of the most beautiful estates in China. Around 100,000 workers reproduced the styles of different gardens and palaces from throughout the Empire. The lake, enlarged once more, was modelled on Hanzhou’s West Lake, with islands, temples and the magnificent 17-arch bridge. Qianlong also remodelled the Temple of Gratitude and Longevity in honour of his mother’s birthday, and the 'three hills and five gardens' became legendary throughout the country, famed for beautifully named gardens: Clear Ripples, Everlasting Spring, Perfection and Brightness, Tranquillity and Brightness, Tranquillity and Pleasure, along with Longevity Hill, Jade Spring Mountain, and Fragrant Hill.
Another hundred years or so and in 1860, during the Opium Wars, the Anglo-French forces ransacked the place, burning many of the buildings, destroying the gardens and plundering its treasures. However, some 20 years later the notorious arch-survivor, Dowager Empress Cixi, spent a colossal amount of money on restoration and reconstruction of the ‘new’ Summer Palace, using funds diverted from the Imperial Navy, courtesy of her brother-in-law once he was put in charge of the navy. Ironically, in another time Emperor Qianlong used to enjoy watching naval exercises on the lake, so he’s unlikely to have approved of either the embezzlement nor the fabulous marble (a nod to the funds’ source?). Unfortunately the Chinese navy suffered as a result in their engagements with the Japanese fleets during the Sino-Japanese war.
Cixi’s time in residence only added to the extravagant tales about her – there’s the courtyard where she walled up most of the exits to ensure that the reigning Emperor did not interfere with her iron grip on the government of the day; the banqueting halls where she required well over a hundred dishes to be prepared for any meal, just in case she wanted one of them, her beloved theatre, displays and reminders of the way most of her opponents died sudden and sometimes mysterious deaths. She is believed to have accumulated an incredible fortune in gold, antiques and jewels. Other historians claim that she was an astute politician in an impossible position, providing conservative rule during challenging times, but she was certainly a strong and remarkable woman who inspired many stories, histories, novels and films.
By the end of the 1800s tensions between the Chinese and foreigners exploded in the Boxer Rebellion; foreigners were under attach, and Beijing’s foreign treaty areas were besieged. Eight nations joined to defeat the Boxers, and because Cixi had supported them the Summer Palace was ransacked yet again, in 1900. The Imperial Family returned three years later, after signing a humiliating treaty, the Summer Palace and gardens were once more on the path to restoration.
The gardens were open to the public in 1911, with the birth of the Republic, although the last Emperor, Puyi, retained the use of private apartments City until 1924both here and in the Forbidden City, until he was expelled from the Imperial Palaces and took up residence in Tianjin. At this time the entire complex was declared a public park
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