Historical Background - The Old Summer Palace
New Yuan Ming Palace in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, located far from the original palace near Beijing, is constructed as a replica of the old palace (aka Old Summer Palace) as the latter existed in its heyday. In its heyday, the old palace, which had been built up over a period of about 150 years from its initial construction in 1707, consisted of three different gardens, the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper (the entire imperial garden itself was known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness), the Elegant Spring Garden, and the Garden of Eternal Spring. The three gardens comprised numerous structures such as halls, temples, galleries, a library, lakes, ponds and streams, as well as smaller gardens. It occupied an area of some 3½ square kilometers.
To give an idea of the scope of this vast palace complex, it was five times larger than the Forbidden City (the official "reception" palace of Chinese emperors) and eight times larger than the Vatican City in Rome. The old palace was thus not only a diversionary summer residence for the emperor, it acquired the status of a first-rate museum, as it housed countless masterpieces of Chinese art such as paintings, calligraphic works, sculptures (including jade figures), furniture, vases, porcelain, jewelry, and just about every other form of art known at the time, including rare books and texts, making the Summer Palace an exquisite library as well. In addition, a number of famous Chinese landscapes had been reproduced on the palace grounds, a practice that was common for the period, as the best of the best throughout the country was deemed worthy of imitation. The old palace-and-garden complex was in fact originally built as an Imperial Gardens, in the manner of the imperial gardens of a European monarch.
Unfortunately for this beautiful treasure trove of Chinese art and culture, it was destroyed in 1860 by troops under the command of the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin (son of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, of 'The Elgin Marbles' fame/ infamy). The palace complex had been looted in early October of that year, shortly after British and French forces arrived in Peking (Beijing) from the coast. A contingent of troops under the command of General Charles Cousin-Montauban (later known as the Count of Palikao) was diverted to the palace, where extensive looting took place, also involving local British residents as well as ordinary Chinese people who had no sympathy for the life of opulence of the emperor. It was, however, a shameless act that had been carried out against a defenseless palace, as the Emperor and his entourage had already fled, leaving the palace in charge of a handful of eunuchs.*
Less than two weeks later, on October 18th, the palace would be burned to the ground, this time on the direct orders of Lord Elgin, an act which the British, in hindsigt, are hardly proud of, but which they, at the time, felt compelled to carry out in response to certain atrocities on the part of the Chinese that were considered by the Europeans as infinitely more represensible than the destruction of a museum and a library, albeit, a museum and library that had already been looted. Click here to read more on the Old Summer Palace
The New Summer Palace and It's Sightseeing Highlights
The New Summer Palace, which officially opened in 1996, is a replica palace-and-gardens complex that comprises an area of about 1½ square kilometers, not including adjacent Fuhai Lake, with lush green mountains bordering it on three sides, of which the nearest is Lanpu Dashilin Mountain. The new palace complex, which is a work-in-progress, is set to become one of China's primary tourist attractions in the region.
The New Yuan Ming Palace incorporates a classical Chinese royal palace complex and a classical Chinese garden complex, as well as a smattering of European-inspired buildings, as did the old palace. The New Summer Palace thus aims to be a showcase on the elegance, talent, and openness of the Qing Dynasty at the pinnacle of its wealth and power. The new palace's European style buildings recall the splendor of the old palace's European-style palatial buildings (in the Baroque style especially, replete with Roman fountains, but there is Gothic architecture here too), with their richly adorned exteriors and their towering interior walls of white marble. The sight of these magnificent buildings, both inside and out, transport the visitor to the court of a European monarch during the late 17th or early 18th century, for example that of the French king, Louis XIV.
The Entertainment "Set Pieces" of the New Summer Palace
The Grandiose Court Ceremonies of the Qing Dynasty
New Yuan Ming Palace's many sightseeing highlights are set among a myriad of pavilions, terraces, and towers. They include the Justice and Honour Hall, the Temple of Heaven, and the Qing Dynasty Jiuzhou Banquet Palace, all of which buildings admirably display the imposing air of the royal family, while other buildings such as the emperor's harem display the palace's more mundane side. Their gracefully shaped glazed tile roofs - some green, others yellow, and still others purple - impart a liveliness to these otherwise solemn, quintessentially Chinese buildings.
A Smorgasbord of Beijing Opera Highlights
As the flagship of Chinese opera - both then and now - Beijing Opera performances in the Summer Palace's Qingyan Garden are sure to please. Among the many traditional highlights are episodes such as "The Crossroads", "Stealing Immortal Herbs", "Wu Song Passing the Inn at the Shizipo Slope", and "Uproar In Heaven".
The Chime Dances
Bell-chime dances have been staged in the palaces of emperors as early as the Shang (BCE 1700-1027) and Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasties. The highly refined Chime Dance performances at the Summer Palace's Qionghua Tower are choreographed in accordance with age-old traditions of classical Chinese dancing. The costumes as well as the simple, yet eclectic and even profound bell-chime music also trace back to earlier imperial dynasties, complementing the dances.
The Flavor of Manchu Dancing
The Manchu are a proud Chinese nationality group with a prominent history. The Manchu not only excel at riding and shooting, they are also quite good at singing and dancing. Manchu dance steps display rugged boldness combined with strong rhythms, interspersed with graceful expressions of tenderness. The literal content of Manchu dances generally concern such themes as victory in battle, an abundant harvest, and the successful hunt, all richly intertwined with stories of innocent love, especially the yearnings of young girls.
A Qing Dynasty Emperor's Wedding Ceremony
The Qing Dynasty emperor's wedding ceremony points up the humor in choosing imperial concubines as part of the wedding ceremony, with all the intrigue and confusion that accompanies such an endeavor, not to speak of the complicated strategic considerations that go into such choices. The costumes and the decor provide the perfect backdrop to this highly colorful event.
The Emperor Visiting His Subjects
In this piece the actors who portray Emperor Qianlong and his entourage (the Empress and the princes and princesses, as well as the servants), take an actual boat trip – in the Dragon Boat – across Fuhai Lake symbolizing Emperor Qianlong's periodic visits to the Yangtze River Delta to see, and be seen by, his people. For the public to observe this open-air performance there must naturally be a boat to carry them. The Phoenix Boat thus provides transportation for the theatre-goers, as it were.
The Emperor Ascending the Throne
The Ascending the Throne ceremony was the most important, far-reaching ceremony in the life of the imperial palace, especially during the times of the Qing Dynasty emperors, since the emperor's power and wealth had eventually reached a level unknown in the China of previous eras. The Ascending the Throne ceremony, a stately and solemn event that was accompanied by the highest pomp and ceremony, including the participation of an ostentatiously large guard of honor, marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new.
At the end of the ceremony of investiture, the newly-crowned emperor would issue new Imperial Edicts that reflected the new emperor's aspirations for the country. The new emperor also took an oath indicating his willingness to serve heaven while governing the country. The Ascending the Throne ceremony was truly a major event in the life of the country. Modern onlookers to the re-enactment of the crowning of an emperor will have a privileged peek into the extravagant lifestyles that prevailed at the Imperial Court.
* Rumor had it that the Count of Palikao ("Palikao" being the French rendition of "Baliqiao", a village just outside Beijing/ Peking where French forces under the command of General Cousin-Montauban had routed the Chinese defenders in 1860, just prior to the looting of the Summer Palace) had lined his own pockets from the looting of the Summer Palace, though it remained solely a rumor. The famous French writer and humanist, Victor Hugo, was so outraged at the sacking and burning of the Summer Palace that he wrote the following comment: "All the treasures of our cathedrals could not equal this fabulous and magnificent oriental museum... One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace. One pillaged and the other set fire... One filled his pockets and the other filled his coffers, and they left arm in arm, laughing. When this goes down in history, one of the bandits will be called France and the other Britain."