Beijing Travel Guide

The Summer Palace

Bronze Dragon
Bronze Dragon

The sprawling grounds of the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) served the Qing Dynasty as an imperial retreat from the stifling summer confines of the Forbidden City. Despite existing as an imperial park in earlier dynasties, it was not until the time of Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1736 to 1795, that the Summer Palace assumed its current layout. The palace is most associated, however, with Cixi who had it rebuilt twice: once following its destruction by French and English troops in 1860, and again in 1902 after it was plundered during the Boxer Rebellion.

The Summer Place
Marble boat Long corridor Longevity Hill Garden of Virtue and Harmony Hall of Benevolence and Longevity
Cixi paid for this extravagant folly with funds meant for the modernization of the Imperial Navy. The superstructure of the boat is made of wood painted white to look like marble. The beams along the length of this 2,388-ft (728-m) walkway are decorated with over 14,000 scenic paintings. The Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha dominates this slope covered with impressive religious buildings. This three-story building served as a theater, where the court’s 348-member opera troupe entertained Cixi, who watched from the surrounding gallery. The principal ceremonial hall, this single-eaved building houses the throne upon which Cixi sat.

Plan of Grounds
The grounds of the Summer Palace cover 716 acres (290 hectares), with Kunming Lake lying to the south of Longevity Hill. South Lake Island is just off the east shore and a stroll around the entire shoreline takes about two hours.

  • Jade Belt Bridge
  • West Causeway
  • South Lake Island
  • Bronze ox

Tempress Dowager CIXI

Empress Cixi, 1835–1908
Empress Cixi, 1835–1908

Together with Tang-dynasty Empress Wu Zetian, Cixi is remembered as one of China’s most powerful women. Having borne the Xianfeng emperor’s son as an imperial concubine, Cixi later seized power as regent to both the Tongzhi and Guangxu emperors (her son and nephew respectively). Cixi prevented Guangxu from implementing state reforms and, in her alliance with the Boxer Rebellion, paved the way for the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Seventeen-arch Bridge linking South Lake Island to the mainland
Seventeen-arch Bridge linking
South Lake Island to the mainland

Exploring the Summer Palace
Like the imperial resort at Chengde, the palace grounds are arranged as a microcosm of nature, its hills (shan) and water (shui) creating a natural composition further complemented by bridges, temples, walkways, and ceremonial halls. Even after repeated restoration, the Summer Palace tastefully harmonizes the functional and fanciful, with administrative and residential quarters leading to the pastoral vistas of the grounds, as well as numerous peaceful temples and shrines.

The grounds of the Summer Palace are extensive, but the main buildings can all be visited by those with a bit of energy and time. The main entrance at the East Palace Gate (Gong Dong Men) leads to the official and residential halls of the palace complex. Just inside the main gate stands the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (Renshou Dian). Note the bronze statues in front of this ceremonial hall, including the symbol of Confucian virtue, the mythical qilin, a hybrid, cloven-hoofed animal with horns and scales. You will see signs here for Suzhou Street, which houses over-priced snack and souvenir stalls, and is not worth the extra entry fee.

Bronze ox, believed to pacify the waters and prevent floods
Bronze ox, believed to pacify
the waters and prevent floods

By the lakeside to the west, the Hall of Jade Ripples (Yulan Tang) is where Cixi incarcerated the Guangxu emperor after the abortive 1898 Reform Movement. Cixi’s residence, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity (Leshou Tang) is to the west of the Garden of Virtue and Harmony (Dehe Yuan) and north of the jetty from where Cixi would set sail across the lake. From here, the Long Corridor (Chang Lang) follows the lakeside, interrupted along its length by four pavilions. At the corridor’s halfway point, a series of religious buildings ascends the slopes of Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan), a sequence marked at the lakeside by a fabulous decorative gate (pailou), beyond which stands Cloud Dispelling Gate, with two bronze lions sitting alongside it. The first main hall, the Cloud Dispelling Hall (Paiyun Dian) is a double-eaved structure, above which rises the prominent, octagonal Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha (Foxiang Ge). Behind the tower sits the rectangular brick and tile 18th-century Temple of the Sea of Wisdom (Huihai Si), its exterior decorated with green and yellow tiles and glazed Buddhist effigies, many of which have been vandalized. From here you can look down to the Back Lake (Hou Hu). West of the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha is the Precious Clouds Pavilion (Baoyun Ge), also called the Bronze Pavilion. Dating from the 18th century, the building is one of a handful that survived the destruction wrought by foreign troops.

The buildings at the north end of the lake are more than enough to fill a single day, however the southern end of the grounds can be blissfully free of crowds. Boat trips to South Lake Island depart from the jetty near the Marble Boat (north of which are the imperial boathouses). Alternatively, if time will allow, hire a boat for a leisurely row around Kunming Lake. Dragon King Temple (Longwang Miao) on South Lake Island is dedicated to the god of rivers, seas, and rain. The island is connected to the eastern shore by the elegant Seventeen-arch Bridge (Shiqi Kong Qiao). A marble lion crowns each of the 544 balusters along the bridge’s length, and a large bronze ox, dating back to 1755, reposes on the eastern shore. On the opposite shore, steep-sloped Jade Belt Bridge links the mainland to the West Causeway which slices through the lake to its southern point.

Seventeen-arch Bridge linking South Lake Island to the mainland
Remnants of the Yuanming Yuan,
once said to resemble Versailles

Yuanming Yuan

  • 28 Qinghua Xi Lu, Haidian
  • Wudaokou, then taxi
  • 010 6262 8501
  • 7am–7pm daily

The yuanming yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, sometimes called the Old Summer Palace), now sits isolated from the main Summer Palace, but was a collection of princely gardens fused into the main mass by the Qing Qianlong emperor in the mid-18th century. He commissioned Jesuits at his court to design and construct a set of European-style buildings in one corner, which they likened to Versailles. Unfortunately, all the traditional Chinese halls were burned down by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. Later the European-style buildings were pulled down, and much of the remains carted away by the locals for building purposes. Chinese narrations of the devastation criticize both the marauding European troops and the ineffectual Qing rulers.

Today, Yuanming Yuan is a jumble of sad, yet graceful fragments of stone and marble strewn in the Eternal Spring Garden in the park’s northeastern corner. A small museum displays images and models of the palace, depicting its scale and magnificence. The Palace Maze has been recreated in concrete to the west of the ruins. The rest of the park is a pleasant expanse of lakes, pavilions, gardens, and walks.

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