Fast Facts About the Summer Palace
Chinese pinyin: Yí Hé Yuán (颐和园)
Why visit: best-preserved imperial garden in the world; only a relatively short drive (15 km) from central Beijing
Time needed: 2-3 hours
Must see: East Palace area, Great Stage (old theater), Long Corridor, Marble Boat, Tower of Buddhist Incense
Activities: boat-riding, hill-climbing, shopping
See What the Emperors Saw – Summer Palace Highlights
Court Area Near the East Gate
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, conducting the business of government, are in the Court Area, near the East Palace Gate. They include a number of halls, courtyards and displays.
Long Corridors for Viewing the Lake
From the Court Area paths run beside the lake (which takes up about 75% of the park), under shady trees or along the roofed breezeway with magnificently painted ceilings, known as the ‘Long Corridor’. Bridges, islands, boats, willows, lotus and attractive landscaping, all make this a pleasant place for soaking up the atmosphere and taking in the views.
Touch History Through the Imperial Decorations
The arched bridges, pretty promenades, decorated ‘corridors’ and breezeways all lead visitors through ever-changing views and scenery. Here the marvelous marble boat (built by Cixi with funds intended for the navy), there an old theatre (one of the three great traditional theatres in China), over there an island reached accessed via small wooden boats, and in the distance the hills, with a temple on a hillside, framed by dark trees.
Do What the Emperors Did
Shop on the Riverside
The ‘Suzhou Market Street’ recreates traditional riverside shops, many of which can only be reached by boat. The story goes that former emperors, or their concubines, used to enjoy 'pretend-shopping’ here.
Boat on the Imperial Lake
You can take a 10-minute boat-ride to visit an island temple, sit and watch a traditional Chinese performance in the restored theatre, enjoy the different buildings and courtyards, or just take in the views from one of the many vantage points on the lake.
Overlook the Palace from Longevity Hill
Alongside the lake path the land rises to Longevity Hill, dotted with superb halls and temples and wonderfully decorated gates. The energetic can climb the hill up to the Buddhist temple which overlooks the whole area. The waterside path continues across bridges, past boathouses and the amazing Marble Boat, to an area of tranquil gardens, hillocks and winding paths.
Cixi and the Palace
Empress Cixi’s time in residence – she reigned for 47 years from 1861 to 1908, and liked to spend time at the Palace – 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; her beloved theatre; displays and reminders of the way most of her opponents died sudden and sometimes mysterious deaths.
Cixi is believed to have accumulated an incredible fortune in gold, antiques and jewels. Some historians claim she was an astute politician in an impossible position, providing conservative rule during challenging times. She was certainly a strong and remarkable woman who inspired many stories, novels and films.
By the end of the 1800s tensions between the Chinese and foreigners erupted in the Boxer Rebellion; foreigners were under attack, 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, in 1900.
The Imperial Family returned three years later, after signing a humiliating treaty; then the Summer Palace and gardens were once more on the path to restoration.
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) 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 modeled on Hangzhou’s West Lake, with islands, temples and the magnificent 17-arch bridge.
Qianlong also remodeled the Temple of Gratitude and Longevity in honor 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, Tranquility and Brightness, Tranquility and Pleasure; along with Longevity Hill, Jade Spring Mountain, and Fragrant Hill.
After another hundred years or so, in 1860 during the Opium Wars, Anglo-French forces ransacked the Palace, burning many of its buildings, destroying its gardens and plundering its treasures.
Some 20 years later, however, the notorious arch-survivor, Dowager Empress Cixi, spent a colossal amount of money on restoration and reconstruction of the ‘new’ Summer Palace. For this she used funds diverted from the Imperial Navy, courtesy of her brother-in-law, after he had been put in charge of the navy.
Ironically, in another era Emperor Qianlong used to enjoy watching naval exercises on the lake; so he’s unlikely to have approved either of the embezzlement or of the fabulous marble. Unfortunately the Chinese navy suffered as a result, in their engagements with Japanese fleets during the Sino-Japanese war.
The gardens were opened to the public in 1911, with the birth of the Republic, although the last Emperor, Puyi, retained the use of private apartments, both at the Summer Palace and in the Forbidden City, until 1924 when he was expelled from the Imperial Palaces and took up residence in Tianjin. At that time the entire Summer Palace complex was declared a public park.
Plan a Trip to the Summer Palace
Three main entrances: East Gate, North Gate, and New Gate. You can choose whichever you prefer: there are facilities for accessing the Palace at each entrance.
Recommended route: East Gate > the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity > Wenchang Gallery > Hall of Jade Ripples > Hall of Happiness and Longevity > Long Corridor > Hall of Dispelling Clouds > Tower of Buddhist Incense > Marble Boat > Suzhou Market Street > North Gate
Places to eat: Small restaurants and refreshments are available in the park. You can find many of them on the Suzhou Market Street.
Please note that though the park provides an audio tour service which costs 20 RMB, you may still want a tour guide who can lead you the right way! You can simply book a 4-day Classical Beijing Tour with us. Or tell us your special request; we can tailor-make a delightful tour for you.