Summer Palace

Beijing's Summer Palace is the largest extant traditional Chinese garden in China. It was built as the summer playground for China's emperors and grew to encompass a huge area filled with gardens, temples, palaces, and even a private imperial shopping center. The Summer Palace’s Chinese name "Yiheyuan" means "Gardens of Nurtured Harmony". It occupies an area of over 2.9 square kilometers. The entire palace was built around Lake Kunming, a manmade lake. Overlooking the lake is Longevity Hill, which was built from the earth dug to create the lake. In 1998, the Summer Palace was listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

The palace was originally built during the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and was continuously extended over the centuries. By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it was already very large. Emperor Kangxi expanded it and his son, Emperor Yongzheng, in 1725 expanded it further. It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Qianlong, that expansion of the garden really took off. He had it enlarged during a series of building projects, to its present size. During his reign, Emperor Qianlong took imperial tours of China and fell in love with the architectural styles and gardens of Suzhou. The architectural style, layout, and design reflect his interest in Suzhou. The palace was looted and then destroyed by the British and French expeditionary forces burned the buildings in the palace to the ground in 1860. It was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902.

Tour of the Summer Palace
Longevity Hill, the most prominent feature of the palace is covered with over 3,000 structures, which are centered on the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The entire palace complex consists of four basic areas; the Court Area, the Front Hill Area, the Rear Hill Area, and the Front Lake Area.

Court Area
The court area is where emperors conducted state affairs, met with government and military officials, and rested.

Front Hill Area
This most photographed and most beautiful part of the Summer Palace, the Front Hill Area has the largest collection of buildings in the palace. Rear Hill Area
Home to the Back Lake, the Rear Hill Area is covered with dense trees and winding paths. The huge Hall of Buddhist Tenets occupies a large section of the area. Suzhou Street, the private street of the Emperor is also located in this area.
Front Lake Area
Located around the west and southern sides of Lake Kunming, the Front Lake Area is less densely packed with buildings, and is offers beautiful views of Longevity Hill. It is home to some very remarkable buildings

Court Area
Visitors enter the palace from the East Palace Gate. The gate leads to the Court Area. The gate has three arched openings. The central opening was for the exclusive use of the Emperor, the Empress, and the Queen Mother. Located on either side of the gate are two large marble stone lions.

Hall of Benevolent Longevity
Straight ahead is the Hall of Benevolent Longevity. It was originally built in 1750 and rebuilt in 1888 after the palace was burned. The hall received its name from a Confucian quote which says; “the ruler who reigns benevolently will have long life”.

Located in front of the hall are two large bronze Qilin, mythological creatures who are very benevolent to good people and extremely fierce towards evil doers. Also in front of the hall are two pairs of bronze statues. The statues are of dragons and phoenixes. It is interesting to not that traditionally, the dragon, the symbol of the Emperor was placed closer to the doorway, but because of the Empress Dowager’s power, the phoenix, the symbol of Empresses is located closer to the door. Outside the hall are a number of large stones from Lake Tai, as well as large incense burners, in which cedar was burned. Just north of the hall is a well named the Well of Extending Life. It received its name because once, when the Empress Dowager Cixi suffered from heat stroke, the water from the well revived her.

The hall is decorated much as it was during the end of the Qing Dynasty with imperial throne, screens, and other symbols of imperial rule. Behind the screen, the Empress Dowager Cixi ruled. The side chambers were for the Emperor and officials to rest.

Court of Virtue and Harmony
Located just north to the Hall of Benevolent Longevity is the Court of Virtue and Harmony. This area is home to a traditional Chinese theatre, where the Emperor would enjoy Peking (Beijing) Opera. The court consists of the Grand Theatre, the Hall of Nurtured Joy and the building for dressing.

The Grand Theatre was the largest imperial theatre of the Qing Dynasty. It was built in 1895 in honor of Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday celebration. The three story theatre is a marvel of theatrical architecture. Each of the structure’s three storeys is a three sided stage and all three were used to represent heaven, earth, and hell. Via a series of trap doors and pulley systems, the performers could travel from one realm to another and allowed them to fly. Located under the stage was a deep pit filled with water which helped amplify the voices of the actors on the stage.

Facing the Grand Theatre is the Hall of Nurtured joy. It was where the opera was watched. Inside the hall are additional rooms for rest. Inside the hall, the furnishings appear much as they did. The centerpiece is the throne where Empress Dowager Cixi watched the opera.

The building for dressing is now home to the Empress Dowager's Mercedes Benz and opera costumes.

Hall of Jade Ripples
Built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong for him to conduct state affairs, the Hall of jade Ripples was burned in 1860 and rebuilt in 1892. It became the area where the Emperor Guangxi was put under house arrest by Empress Dowager Cixi after the failed 1898 Reform Movement, in which the emperor tried to update a number of the outdated policies still used by the government. The hall got its name from a line in a poem by Jin Dynasty (265-316) poet Luji; “jade spring with rippling water”. There are two rocks located outside the Hall of Jade Ripples. They originally used to be placed next to each other. After the 1898 Reform Movement failed, the Empress Dowager had the rocks separated to symbolize an end to their relationship.
Yiyun House
Located north of and connected to the Hall of Jade Ripples, the Yiyun House was constructed in the traditional Beijing Quadrangle style. Originally built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the house was rebuilt in 1888 after being burned to the ground. The house’s main hall is composed of five front rooms, three back rooms, and 5 rooms on the east and west side respectively. During the reign of Emperor Guangxi, the house was home to the empress, even though connected, the doors connecting the two compounds were bricked up, and so the Emperor could not visit his Empress.

Hall of Happy Longevity
Originally built in the 18th century by Emperor Qianlong for his mother, the Hall of Happy Longevity was decorated with a combination of Chinese art treasures and foreign tribute gifts. The hall opens on Lake Kunming where a dock is located for the Empress to cruise the lake. The hall became the living quarters of Empress Dowager Cixi.

Garden of Harmonious Interests
Located northeast of the Court Area is the Garden of Harmonious Interests. It is known as the garden within the garden. It is very representative of the traditional Chinese gardens found in Suzhou. In 1751, the Emperor Qianlong went on an inspection tour of China. He was very fond of the Jichuangyuan Garden in Wuxi City in Jiangsu Province and ordered that a similar garden be built within the Summer Palace. Artists who accompanied him on his travels drew the Wuyi garden and these images were used to design the Garden of Harmonious Interests. The garden was remodeled in 1811, and rebuilt after it was destroyed in 1860. The current garden is composed of seven pavilions, five halls, all surrounding a lotus pond.

Front Hill Area:
Some of the most impressive buildings in the Summer Palace are located in the Front Hill Area. The buildings are testaments to Chinese architectural prowess and artistic skills.

The Long Corridor
Originally built by Emperor Qianlong so his mother could walk the length of the Summer Palace out of the weather, the Long Corridor is famous for its length. The 728 meter long corridor begins at the Hall of Happy Longevity and ends at the Greeting the Moon Gate. The corridor has crossbeams which divide it into 273 sections. There are four pavilions along its length symbolizing the four seasons. Decorated with more than 14,000 paintings, the corridor is an art gallery with each painting representing Chinese classical literature, legends, and historical occurrences. Many Chinese people like to walk the corridor trying to figure out the origins of each painting. It is a very difficult task that very few can do.

Hall of Dispelling Clouds
Located on the central axis of Longevity Hill, the Hall of Dispelling Clouds was used for celebrations. The hall is filled with incredible treasures and contains 21 rooms. The current building dates back to the late Qing Dynasty and was built after the Summer Palace was burnt to the ground. It was only used once a year as the major site of the celebrations for Empress Dowager Cixi’s birthday party each year.

Tower of Buddhist Incense
The centerpiece of the Summer Palace, the Tower of Buddhist Incense is located on the peak of Longevity Hill. The tower is a three storied octagonal pavilion of incredible beauty. The tower is 41 meters high and has a commanding view of the Summer Palace. The original tower was burned in 1860 and the current tower was rebuilt in 1891 at a cost of 780,000 taels of silver. The centerpiece of the tower is the five meter gilded statue of the One Thousand Handed Guanyin. Visitors can climb the tower to get a bird’s eye view of the entire palace.

Precious Cloud Pavilion
Located to the west of the Tower of Buddhist Incense is the Precious Cloud Pavilion. The pavilion is unique in that it is made entirely of bronze. It was constructed much the same as a traditional wooden pavilion, but with each timber and tile being made of cast bronze. The pavilion has a double eaved roof and is 7.5 meters tall and weighs 207 tons. When the Summer Palace was burned down, the pavilion survived due to its material. In 1908, the ten bronze windows of the pavilion were stolen. In the 1970’s the windows, which were in Europe were returned to China and replaced in the pavilion. Now the pavilion looks just as it did during the Qing Dynasty.

Temple of the Sea of Wisdom
Located just behind the Tower of Buddhist Incense, the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom is unique in that it is completely made of colored glazed bricks. It was because the structure had no wooden beams, that it survived the fire that burned down most of the palace. The exterior of the structure is decorated with over one thousand small images of the Buddha cast in relief. During the looting of the palace, all of the Buddhas that were within reach of bayonets were pried off by the French and English troops. The temple is centered around a large statue of Guanyin seated on a lotus blossom.

Marble Boat
One of the most famous aspects of the entire palace is the huge Marble Boat. Many traditional Chinese gardens had boats made of marble, which were used to sit in and enjoy the water. The boat sits on a foundation out in Kunming Lake. The boat’s actual name is the Boat of Clearness and Comfort. It is located at the western bank of Longevity Hill. The original boat was built in 1755 by Emperor Qianlong. It was built in the traditional Chinese style and imitated the huge sailing vessels that he used while inspecting Southern China. After the palace was burned, the boat was rebuilt in the style of a western paddleboat, but with Chinese elements.

Rear Hill Area
Located to the north of Longevity Hill, the Rear Hill Area consists of the back lake, Suzhou Street, the The Four Great Regions Complex, and wooded areas. It has a far more natural appearance than the Front Hill Area

Suzhou Street
Lining the banks of the Back Lake is Suzhou Street. The street is lined with Suzhou style shops. It was built for the Emperors and their Empresses and Concubines, so they could go shopping and feel like normal people. The area was built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. The palace eunuchs would act as shop owners, peddlers, customers, and street performers. They would make the street feel as though it was a real shopping street. The Emperor and his entourage could walk the street shopping and bargaining.

The Four Great Regions Complex
Occupying the central axis on the north side of Longevity Hill, the Four Great Regions consists of a massive group of Tibetan styled buildings which occupy an area of over 20,000 square meters. All of the buildings were burned to the ground in 1860 and only one, the Hall of Buddhist Doctrine was rebuilt during the late Qing Dynasty. Starting at the base of the hill, the first building, the Wonderland of Meru, was never rebuilt and remains an empty area. The Buddhist Hall of the Four Great Regions was built on the location of the burned Hall of Buddhist Doctrine. The original building was four stories tall, but the current one is only one storey. Located around the Buddhist Hall of the Four Great Regions are four structures representing the four regions of the Buddhist World. There are also eight terraces and dagoba's which represent the eight continents in Buddhism.

Front Lake Area
Facing the Front Hill Area is the Front Lake Area. It includes the South Lake Island and a number of bridges and cultural relics. Its most famous feature is the Seventeen Arch Bridge which bridges the gap between the South Lake Island and the shore.

Bronze Ox
Located on the eastern bank of Kunming Lake near the Seventeen Arch Bridge is a bronze ox sitting on a white marble base carved with swirling waters. The ox is a masterpiece of bronze casting. It was cast during the reign of Emperor Qianlong and has an inscription written by him upon its back. China was an agrarian society and it was believed that the ox had the powers to control flooding. China regularly faced devastating floods which destroyed thousands of homes, killed people, and laid waste to huge areas of farmland. The bronze ox was cast in the hope that China would enjoy no flooding, so the country and the people would be prosperous.
Pavilion of Broad Vistas
Standing on the shore of Kunming Lake, near the eastern end of the Seventeen Arch Bridge, is the Pavilion of Broad Vistas. This huge pavilion was where the Emperors would hold banquets. Emperor Qianlong, a lover of poetry writing would hold poetry competitions there with his officials. The pavilion’s beams are brightly colored and there are some of Emperor Qianlong’s poems hanging inside.

Seventeen Arch Bridge With a length of 150 meters and a width of 8 meters, the Seventeen Arch Bridge connects South Lake Island with the eastern shore of Kunming Lake. Built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the bridge has similar features as the Baodai Bridge in Suzhou. There are 544 white marble lions on the balustrade of the bridge. Each lion has its own unique appearance and pose.

South Lake Island
Occupying an area of 1 hectare, South Lake Island is the largest island in the Summer Palace. Originally, Kunming Lake was much smaller than it is today, and the area that is South Lake Island was originally on dry land. Emperor Qianlong, during the renovations he ordered, wanted the buildings saved, so when Kunming Lake was dug, the buildings were dug around, thus forming the area into an island.

The island is home to several halls and temples. On the north side of the island is the Hall of Forbearance and Humbleness. From this hall, the Emperor would watch naval exercises on Kunming Lake. The Dragon King Temple complex, which occupies a majority of the island, is dedicated to the Dragon King. The dragon was the symbol of the Emperor and was also believed to be the bringer of rain, so the temple was very important to each succeeding Emperor.