The Summer Palace in winter and summer
The Summer Palace is one of the major tourist sites in Beijing along with other well known tourist sights including The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. So it was always on my list of places for my many visitors, to see. It’s only about twelve kilometres from the centre of Beijing and easy to get to by either subway or taxi. It’s good to start at the North Palace Gate and then walk your way through to the Easter Gate (where there are also taxis waiting).
The lake and grounds are so completely different in winter and summer and having visited there many times, I was lucky to see the palace and its grounds in all seasons. The palace grounds comprise lakes, gardens and of course the palace.
The construction of the summer palace started in 1750 and was built as a luxurious garden for royal families.
In 1912, following the abdication of Puyi, the Last Emperor – if you haven’t seen the movie of the same name – please buy or download it – it’s great and provides excellent coverage of the Forbidden City and Summer Palace [without any of the tens of thousands of tourists], the Summer Palace became the private property of the former imperial family of the Qing Dynasty.
Two years after the palace became the private resident of the Qing Dynasty, it was opened to the public and entry tickets were sold. In 1924, after Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City by the warlord Feng Yuxiang, the Beijing municipal government took charge of administrating the Summer Palace and turned it into a public park.
After 1949, the Summer Palace briefly housed the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. Many of Mao Zedong’s friends and key figures in the Communist Party also lived there. Since 1953, after major restoration and renovation works were carried out the Summer Palace, once again became a tourist attraction open to the public.
However, like most of the gardens of Beijing, it did not elude destruction when it was destroyed by fire in the 19th century.
The Summer Palace was reconstructed later that century and on my first visit my tour guide told me that Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled navy funds to reconstruct it as a resort in which to spend the rest of her life. The use of naval funds affected China’s naval strength and Cixi’s conservativeness showed up China’s inadequacies in the Sino-Japanese War.
Empress Dowager Cixi was born in 1835 and always said that as a young girl she had a very hard life. She said that she was ignored whilst her sisters had everything they wanted. At the age of sixteen she was chosen to be one of the concubines to Emperor Xianfeng, and on turning eighteen, she become a royal concubine. She was known to be a very strong-willed girl.
(photo from https://empressdowagercixi.wordpress.com)
Emperor Xianfeng had many wives and concubines, but it was only Cixi who bore a son after which she became one of the emperor’s wives. The emperor trusted her judgement and consulted her constantly on affairs of state. Emperor Xianfeng died at the age of 30 and as Cixi was the only wife to bear a son, her five year old son Tongzhi became the emperor. From then her greed for power became insatiable and finally she seized the throne.
The empress squandered money on banquets, jewels, and other luxuries. She liked, for example, to be served 150 different dishes at a single banquet. When she had the summer palace rebuilt she also ordered a marble boat to be built on the lake. The boat was built with a base made from huge stones. The base supported a wooden pavilion in traditional Chinese style. The boat is now the only western-style structure in the Summer Palace.
The Marble Boat is 36 meters long with two storeys and eight meters high. It is said that Empress Cixi used the huge mirrors fixed on each deck to enjoy the views of the lake whilst drinking tea. The roof of the two-decked boat is made from brick carvings and four dragon heads mounted in each direction serve as drains, allowing rain water to be channeled out of their mouths.
Unfortunately, Cixi did not use her strength to help China and because of her ignorance to reform, her absence of integrity and her poor administration her rule was a large factor causing the decline of the Qing Dynasty. She did however outlaw the smoking of opium and ‘slicing of people’ (glad that was outlawed!!). She was also renowned for her sayings; once I have included in the next photo (bit scary).
Now back to the Summer Palace; it is actually centred around a hill [Longevity Hill] and a lake [Kunming Lake], with the latter covering about three quarters of the area.
Most of the important buildings were built along the north–south axis of Longevity Hill, which is divided into the front hill and the back hill and there are three small islands within Kunming Lake: Nanhu Island, Zaojiantang Island and Zhijingge Island.
And finally one other site worth mentioning at the Summer Palace is The Long Corridor which is a covered walkway erected in the middle of the 18th century. The total length of the corridor is 728 meters, with crossbeams under the roof dividing it into 273 sections. The corridor was constructed so that Emperor Qinglong’s mother could enjoy a walk through the gardens protected from the elements. Like most of the Summer Palace, the Long Corridor was severely damaged by fire in 1860. It was rebuilt in 1886 and has more that 14,000 coloured paintings on its roof and sides.
In November 1998, the Summer Palace was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Towards the end of 2006, the Chinese government also started distributing commemorative coins to celebrate the Summer Palace as a cultural relic of the world.
A great place to visit and take a picnic (definitely not in winter) but in winter you can walk across Kunming Lake; in summer you can take the boat around the lake which I did on one occasion.