Summer Palace in Beijing: A Royal Hideaway

Tower of Buddhist Incense

Tower of Buddhist Incense

A hidden gem near the crowded city of Beijing, the Summer Palace is an expanse of elaborate gardens and stunning pavilions.  Unlike the structure and formality of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace is permeated with a sense of peace and tranquility.  Nature at its finest is brought to the forefront and complemented by vibrant artwork from every corner.  It is easy to understand how it became a favorite hideaway of the royal family through the centuries.

A Palace Away from Home

Located 15 kilometers from Beijing, the Summer Palace was constructed in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and quickly became a garden playground befitting royalty.  Feudal emperors would rest and entertain on the grounds, away from the prying eyes of the Forbidden City.  In 1888, the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled from the national navy in order to reconstruct the palace and repair all the fire damage inflicted by the Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War.  It would become a cherished home for her during the later years of her life.

The Summer Palace occupies an area of 294 hectares (726.5acres), including parts of Kunming Lake and Longevity Hill, stretching well beyond what would have been available in the capital city.  Pavilions, gallery corridors, gardens and bridges are peppered throughout the palace grounds.  Situated on top of Longevity Hill is the Tower of Buddhist Incense, standing at 41 meters (134.5 ft) in height with three levels.  Twice a month, the Empress Dowager Cixi would go to the Tower to pray.  The climb to the top is steep, but visitors are amply rewarded with the exceptional view of the rooftops and the famous Seventeen-Arch Bridge.

In the courtyard of the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, the first hall that visitors encounter upon entering the main gate, is a bronze statue of a Qilin (also spelled Kirin), a mythical beast with the head of a dragon, the tail of a lion, the horns of a deer, and the hooves of a bull.  According to legend, the fierce Qilin punishes the wicked and protects against fire.  Directly in front of the hall are a bronze statue of a dragon, representing the Emperor, and a bronze statue of a phoenix, representing the Empress.  As it was no secret that the Empress Dowager Cixi managed all state affairs, the phoenix statue at the Summer Palace stands in the center while the dragon statue stands off to the side.

The Empress at Leisure

Built in 1750, the Hall of Happiness and Longevity was originally two storeys high but was one of the buildings destroyed by fire.  It was reconstructed to be the Empress Dowager’s personal residence, where both her bedroom chamber and her dressing room were located.  The hall also boasted a throne room for more intimate guests, with both native and foreign artwork and no less than 48 attendants ready to do the Empress Dowager’s bidding.  The front gate of the Hall also opens directly to Kunming Lake, where docked boats awaited her orders.

Located west of the Hall of Happiness and Longevity and linking Longevity Hill to Kunming Lake is the Long Gallery Corridor.  The corridor is 728 m (2,388 ft) in length and winds its way through the gardens.  Strolling through the corridor is a feast for the eyes as the natural gardens are framed by vivid paintings along the beams and columns.  Painted crossbeams divide the corridor into 273 sections and there are four octagonal pavilions joining different altitudes, each representing one of the four seasons.  The paintings depict natural landscapes, scenes from classical literature, historical figures and folk tales, including a major painting depicting the legendary Sun Wu Kong of Journey to the West.  A stroll through the corridor allows visitors to immerse themselves in Chinese history and culture while enjoying both the talent of the artists and the wonders of the surrounding landscape.

The end of the corridor leads straight to the Marble Boat, also known as the Boat of Purity and Ease.  This pavilion is a two-storey structure that cannot be taken out into the lake.  Originally constructed in 1755, it was built to add aesthetic value to the gardens.  As with other areas of the palace, it was burned down and rebuilt in 1893.  Ironically, the Empress Dowager Cixi used the embezzled naval funds to restore the Marble Boat to its original condition.  The boat itself is majestic to behold and offers a peaceful view of Kunming Lake.

The Summer Palace is located at 19 Xinjiangongmen Lu.  The all-inclusive entrance fee is 50¥ from November 1 until March 31 and 60¥ from April 1 until October 31.  On Subway Line 4, the closest stations are Beigongmen Station and Xiyuan Station.

Originally posted on Suite 101.

Lin-Liu, Jen and Pham, Sherisse.  Frommer’s Beijing Day by Day 1st Edition.  New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, 2008.

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