This post is part of I <3 BJ, a Departful series by Alex Rathy highlighting some of the great spots in and around Beijing, and their unique history.
Even emperors need to get away. Beijing can be stiflingly hot in the summer. Today, pollution and smog produced by industry and heavy traffic combine with a monsoon-influenced humid continental climate to make days in the capital from June through August almost unbearable; and in the past, the sweltering air and summer sun baked the concrete metropolis known as the Forbidden City so badly that the Imperial Court decided it needed a plush garden getaway outside of town in which the man on the throne could relax when the heat simply became too much.
The site now known as the Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan or “Garden of Nurtured Harmony”) was actually started by Emperor Wanyan Liang of the Jin (Jurchen) Dynasty (1115-1234) during the 12th century. After moving his capital from Huining to Yanjing (present-day Beijing), he had the Gold Mountain Palace built on the site presently referred to as Longevity Hill. Later, during the Yuan Dyansty (1279-1368), it was renamed Jug Hill (Weng Shan). According to legend, a jar of treasure was found on the hill – the later loss of which coincided with the crumbling of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), as predicted by the discoverer.
It wasn’t until the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) that the modern Summer Palace began to emerge and take its present shape. Qianlong – who traveled extensively throughout China during his lifetime, noting places of beauty – commissioned designers and artisans to reproduce the various architectural styles that he had witnessed in 1749. The resulting “Garden of Clear Ripples” (Qingyi Yuan) was a living homage to traditional Chinese garden architecture, a blending of trees, rocks, pavilions, paths, bridges and lakes that provided the royal family with a place to rest and entertain during the hot summer months. In 1752, Emperor Qianlong gave Longevity Hill its present-day name in celebration of his mother’s 60th birthday.
The palace complex fell victim in later years to two major attacks. First, in 1860, allied French-English forces ransacked it at the end of the Second Opium War. The garden survived, and Empress Dowager Cixi ordered it rebuilt and enlarged in 1886 using silver earmarked for the Imperial Navy. After completion in 1888, the Empress dubbed the palace “Yihe Yuan,” which has remained its name to this day. Interestingly, this embezzlement of money used to fund the Summer Palace’s reconstruction happened a scant six years before the start of the First Sino – Japanese War, in which China came out on the losing end. As a result, the Summer Palace came to symbolize the decadence, opulence and general mismanagement of the royal family. In 1900 the palace was attacked yet again, this time by the Eight-Power Allied Force during the Boxer Rebellion. It was rebuilt once more over the next two years.
The Summer Palace was first opened up to the public in 1911, and officially became a public park in 1924 after the last Qing Emperor, Puyi, was banished from the Forbidden City. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and lauded as a “masterpiece of Chinese landscape design,” it is considered one of the top tourist attractions in Beijing and is the biggest and most well-preserved royal park in China. The palace covers approximately 2.9 square kilometers (300 hectares/743 acres) in Haidan District (15 kilometers northwest of the city centre), the vast majority of which is Kunming Lake – which serves as a great example illustrating how almost everything in the palace complex was inspired by architecture from somewhere else in China. Entirely man-made and created by enlarging a previous, smaller man-made lake, Kunming was based upon and designed to imitate the famed Xihu (West Lake) in the city of Hangzhou, a few hours south of Shanghai.
Besides Kunming Lake, the Summer Palace is dominated by the aforementioned Longevity Hill. Standing about 60 meters (200 feet) high, Longevity Hill is the entire concept of the palace in a nutshell. On the front hill, pathways, pavilions and great halls speak to the functionality of needing to hold court and conduct state affairs; and on the back hill, there is an eerie quiet and calming natural beauty that fill the soul with peace and tranquility – the two existing, of course, in total harmony.
How to get to the Summer Palace
Located between Beijing’s 4th and 5th ring roads, the Summer Palace is easily accessible by public transportation. On the Beijing Subway Line 4, exit at Beigongmen Station to access the North Palace Gate; or, you can get off at Xiyuan Station, go out exit C2 and walk west 500 meters to access the East Palace Gate. Literally dozens of buses service the palace as well, depending on where you plan on climbing aboard in Beijing. Ask your hotel or hostel for information on which bus to take and the nearest stop. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can do what I did and rent a bicycle, grab a map and put in a few sweat-stained hours pedaling out – just be sure to bring lots of water and have a decent idea of where you’re going.
Admission tickets run about 50 or 60 yuan ($8-10 USD) during the high season (April 1st – October 31st) and provide entrance to the park and all of the sites inside.