Situated 13 Km northwest of central Beijing, the Summer Palace is one of the largest, (2.9 Sq Km) best preserved, and most interesting royal gardens in the world. Chinese gardens are made up of four things, Flowers and Plants, Water (three quarters of the Summer Palace is open water), Rocks and Architecture. Although it is called a palace it is not in fact a single building but includes scores of buildings, such as temples, halls, pavilions and towers. Despite having many different garden and architectural styles, the Summer Palace is harmonious and visually pleasing.
Historically, as a garden, it dates back to the 12th century. Towards the end of the 13th century, the founder of the Mongol dynasty in China Emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) ordered the construction of canals to transport water from the Western Hills to the site of what is now the Summer Palace in order to improve his water supply. There he enlarged the lake (now called KunMing Lake) to act as a reservoir.
Emperor Qianlong started to construct the gardens of the Summer Palace in 1750 for the 60th birthday of his mother. His designers reproduced the styles of various palaces and gardens from around China: A task that took 15 years to complete.
In 1860, the Anglo-French Allied Forces invaded Beijing and set fire to many of the buildings within the Summer Palace. – This was a result of the opium wars which dates back to 1840 when first the British, then other countries wanted to be able to trade with China. China took these countries ambassadors hostage, which resulted in a force capturing Beijing and the subsequent destruction and theft from the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City.
Dowager Empress CiXi restored the gardens and embarked on a development programme over the ten years from 1888, work that was to reconstruct and enlarge the Summer Palace. In 1889 it became the primary summer palace. On completion, CiXi renamed it ‘The Garden of Peace and Harmony'.
In 1898 the Boxer Rebellion erupted, this was an anti-foreign movement in China and was encouraged by the Empress CiXi, as a means of driving foreigners from China. After the rebellion had been put down by the Western Powers in 1900 they embarked on a series of reprisals resulting in most of the Summer Palace being destroyed. This resulted in CiXi having to flee although she was allowed back and in 1903 rebuilt the Summer Palace to what we see today. In 1911 after China’s Revolution brought an end of Imperial Rule, the Palace was opened to the public.
On visiting the Palace visitors on tours tend to use the East Palace Gate. During imperial times the centre gate was for the sole use of the emperor and empress while family & court officials use the side gates. Lions are situated at the gate as they are seen as guardians and act to ward off evil spirits.
Passing through an archway visitors come to the Emperor's administration area which comprises of a number of buildings. The main one is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, built in 1750; it was burned down in 1860 by the Anglo-French allied forces, but was reconstructed in 1888 by CiXi. The columns made from the NanMoo Tree from South West China are made from single tree trunks.
In front of the building is a Sculpted bronze beast called a Kylin, it has a dragons head, tail of a lion, horn of a deer and hoof of a cow. Also around the Palace are found dragons, which unlike in the West, are seen as benevolent and are revered as bringers of rain. Dragons are the symbol of the emperor, and all of his personal possessions such as cloths, plates, buildings have dragons on it; although the Emperors dragons have five claws, while all others have four.
In Chinese Architecture the structure is based on the principle of balance and symmetry. Generally buildings are made of timber with curved roofs to ward off evil spirits. At the edge of the roofs are mythological creatures which also denote the importance of a building - the more creatures the greater the importance. The main structure is positioned on the axis while Secondary structures are positioned as wings on either side
There are many other structures of significance with the Palace; the 'Long Corridor' is a covered walkway 726 metres long that runs along Kunming lake. Built by QianLong so his mother could walk by the lake when it was raining, it is the longest walkway in any Chinese garden. It begins at the Invite-the-moon Gate in the east and is divided into 200 sections and ends at the Master Stone Pavilion in the west. It has over 14,000 traditional Chinese paintings of scenes from South China on the beams and crossbeams.
Rising up from the lake is the 60m high Longevity Hill, which was created during the excavating of the lake. On the hillside are a series of buildings forming a separate palace complex which is entered from the lake by the ceremonial archway or from the Long Corridor. The entry to the complex is via a small courtyard and at the back of the courtyard is the Hall that Dispels the Clouds, which CiXi would use only on her birthday, for the remainder of the year the building was closed.
Further up the hill is the Pavilion of Buddhist Fragrance, the octagonal, wooden pavilion is the highest and largest building in the Summer Palace. The 40-meter-high tower is built on a 20 meter high stone terrace half way up the Hill making it visible for many miles. Originally it was planned as a nine level pagoda but QianLong changed this during the construction to seven levels. Destroyed by the Japanese when they invaded it was rebuilt as a four storey building due to financial restrictions.
The thing that the Palace is most famous for is the 36 metre long Marble Boat, built in 1755 to replicate the boats which QianLong used during an inspection to Southern China. It was destroyed in 1860 but rebuilt by CiXi in 1893.
The palace is also famed for its bridges and these include the Jade Belt Bridge, also known as the Camel's Back Bridge, an 18th century pedestrian bridge made from stone and marble. The clearance of the arch was set to accommodate the dragon boat of QianLong.
Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1990; the Summer Palace projects the air of harmony between the different elements and styles; giving it the title of the “Garden of Gardens”.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.