The Summer Palace was an imperial garden and a summer retreat in the Qing dynasty. It is a vast complex of palaces, lakes and parks in the north-west part of modern day Beijing. Two most recognisable features of this beautiful place are the Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake. The palace covers 2.9km², of which three quarters is water.
The Longevity Hill is approximately 60m high and has many buildings built in sequence. The front part of the hill contains halls and pavilions. The back part is a big park, although there are some buildings too.
The Kunming Lake is an entirely man-made lake.
The history of the Summer Palace consists of three distinctive parts:
1. PRE-QING DYNASTY
The origins of the palace date back to the Jin dynasty. In 1153 the Jin capital moved from the Huining prefecture to the ancient city of Yanjing, which was present day Beijing. Construction of the palace started in the north-west part of the city.
After the Yuan dynasty established its capital in Khanbaliq (also present day Beijing) around 1271, the engineer Guo Shoujing initiated a waterworks project to direct the water into the Western Lake. His aim was to create a water reservoir that would ensure stable water supply for the palace.
In 1494, the Hongzhi Emperor of the Ming dynasty built the Yuanjing temple for his wet nurse Lady Luo. He built it in front of the Jar Hill. But, over the years the temple fell into disrepair and it was abandoned.
Afterwards, the Zhengde Emperor built a palace on the banks of the Western Lake and turned the area into an imperial garden.
During the reign of the Tianqi Emperor, a very powerful court eunuch Wei Zhongxian took the imperial garden as his personal property.
2. QING DYNASTY SUMMER PALACE
In the early Qing dynasty, the Jar Hill served as a site for horse stables of the imperial palace. Also, eunuchs who committed offences were sent there to weed and cut grass.
Around 1749, the Qianlong Emperor decided to build a palace in the vicinity of the Jar Hill and the Western Lake, to celebrate the 60th birthday of his mother. In the name of improving the capital’s waterworks system, he ordered the expansion of the Western Lake further west, by creating two more lakes: the Gaoshui and the Yangshui Lakes. Three lakes served not only as a reservoir for the imperial gardens, but also as a water source for surrounding agricultural areas. The Emperor named these three lakes the Kunming Lake. The earth excavated from the expansion of the lake served to enlarge the Jar Hill, which became the Longevity Hill.
Construction of the palace finished in 1764. The design of palace was based on the Chinese mythology legend about three divine mountains in the East Sea. Three islands in the lake represented the three mountains, while the lake was a blueprint of the West Lake in Hangzhou. Besides, many architectural features in the palace resembled or imitated various attractions around China.
The centrepiece of the palace was the “Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity”. There was also 700m Long Corridor, with artistic decorations. However, as the palace did not have facilities for long-term stay and daily administration of state affairs, the Emperor hardly lived there. Instead, he only remained for the day whenever he visited it.
As the Qing empire started to decline in the first part of the 19th century, the palace gradually became more neglected. Buildings on three islands were dismantled because of very high maintenance costs.
In 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War, the French and the British looted the Summer Palace. The British burned down the nearby Old Summer Palace in October 1860. Destruction of large parts of the palace still evokes strong emotions among some people in China.
Between 1884–1895, the Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled 22 million silver taels, originally designated to upgrade the navy. She used the funds to reconstruct and enlarge the Summer Palace for her 60th birthday celebration.
In 1900, towards the end of the Boxer Rebellion, the palace suffered further damage when forces of the Eight-Nation Alliance destroyed the imperial gardens and seized many artefacts stored in the palace. The palace was restored two years later.
3. POST-QING DYNASTY
In 1912, after the abdication of the Last Emperor Puyi, the palace became a private property of the former imperial Qing family. Two years later, they opened it to the public and sold the entry tickets.
In 1924, after Puyi’s expulsion from the Forbidden City, the Beijing government took charge of the palace and turned it into a public park.
After 1949, it briefly housed the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. Many of Mao Zedong’s friends and key communist party figures lived there.
Many major restoration and renovation works have been done on the palace since 1953.
It became the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, as “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”.
I have already written about this beautiful palace in my Beijing post. It is a must see if you go to Beijing. But, I suggest that you go there as soon as it opens. Hopefully, it will be less crowded at that time and you will be able to experience its truly magical side. The whole place is dreamlike, however it is really very hard to imagine it without being there and seeing it for yourself.
It is very easy to get there by metro, line no. 4. The nearest metro stop is Beigongmen. The palace entrance is 2-3 minutes away from the metro station. But, keep in mind that one whole day is not enough to see everything. Although whatever you manage to see, it will be more than enough for you to end up full of beautiful impressions!