Built around 1750 by Emperor Qianlong, the Summer Imperial Palace in Beijing is one of the largest and most beautifully landscaped estates and architectural complexes in China and one of the most elaborate examples of classical Chinese gardens.
Located in the Haidian District, about 12 miles northwest on the outskirts of Beijing, the Chinese Imperial Garden known as the Summer Palace had its beginnings in the 12th Century when Emperor Zhangzong established at the site a residence and a place to rest during the sweltering Beijing summer months. Its original name was “Qingyi Yuan” which means "The Garden of Clear Ripples".
Over the years the gardens were expanded several times. By the mid-18th Century, during the Qing Dynasty, the last Royal House that ruled China from 1644 to 1911, it was formally converted into the imperial residence. The Summer Palace increased in size and complexity by the addition of numerous structures used as residence and recreation areas for the royal family and the construction of large halls and temples for official and ceremonial gatherings.
Longevity Hill, Summer Palace, Beijing. The main building on the center right is the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance. At the top of the hill is The Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. On the left center is The Marble Boat.
Two of the three sections of the richly decorated “Archway of Gorgeous Clouds and Jade Eaves”. It is located by the lake and it was used as a gateway to the gardens and to the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance.
The complex is totally man-made. It is the result of the work of some 150,000 workers, craftsmen and artists who worked more than 15 years in its construction and development. The garden’s total area is about 3 square kilometers. It has two main components, a 2.2 square kilometre lake and a 60-metre-high hill. Kunming Lake was created by digging a rather shallow depression with an average depth of 1.5 meters. The soil removed from the excavation was accumulated in the northern sector of the area thus creating the mount known as Longevity Hill where most of the buildings are located.
The Blue Iris Stone. The gardens and courtyards of the Summer Palace are decorated with many unusual rock formations brought to the Palace from all over China. This bluish, glossy stone is the largest in any Chinese garden; it measures about 8 metres long by 2 metres high. It sits on the courtyard of the Hall of Happiness and Longevity.
The Tower of Buddhist Fragrance and The Temple of the Sea of Wisdom in the south-facing slope of Longevity Hill.
The palace and other important buildings were attacked, looted and burned by Anglo-French forces at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860). In 1885, Empress Dowager Cixi, (a.k.a. the “Dragon Lady”) was running the government as a Regent on behalf of her nephew Zaitian who in 1875, at the age of 4, became the Guangxu Emperor, and decided to move her residence from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace. It is said that to finance the renovation and ornamentation of the residence, and to enhance and embellish the gardens, Empress Cixi would have used resources defrauded from government funds which had been allotted for improvement of the Chinese Navy. Between 1886 and 1902 the Summer Palace was virtually rebuilt. In 1888, it received its current name, “Yihe Yuan” meaning "The Garden of Health and Harmony".
Summer Palace, Beijing. The Tower of the Buddhist Fragrance seen from the gardens next to the Long Corridor.
The constructions of the palace, consisting of buildings, temples, halls, pavilions, gazebos, gates, archways and galleries amount to about 3000 structures and are found mainly on the Hill of Longevity and along the lake-shore. Some of the main buildings are “The Tower of Buddhist Fragrance” (Incense), which has been called a masterpiece of ancient Chinese architecture, “The Temple of the Sea of Wisdom” and “The Hall of Happiness and Longevity”. The gardens include large areas preserved in semi-natural condition and exquisitely crafted docks, bridges and pergolas. Among the most important elements are the large covered gallery known as The Long Corridor, The Marble Boat and the Bridge of 17 Arches.
The Long Corridor is almost 730 meters long and has 4 octagonal gazebos representing the four seasons. The beams and ceilings of the walkway are profusely decorated with over 14,000 paintings depicting scenes from Chinese history, literature and mythology and lots of flowers and animals including horses, birds, fish and insects.
The Battle of Zhuxian County. This painting in the Long Corridor shows a scene from a decisive battle in the war between the Jin and the Song Dynasties. In the Battle of Zhuxian County, the Song army was nearly beaten, but the courage of its generals changed a near defeat into a victory.
Zhang Fei's fight with Ma Chao. Painting in the Long Corridor depicting a battle between Zhang Fei and Ma Chao, two of the future Five Tiger Generals of the Kingdom of Shu. The episode takes place in the Battle of Jiameng Pass in the historical Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms".
Sun Wukong's fight with Nezha. Painting in the Long Corridor showing images from an episode taken from a novel of the Chinese literature called “Journey to the West”. The painting depicts the monkey king Sun Wukong fighting the boy god Nezha.
The Marble Boat (also known as "The Boat of Purity and Ease") is a lakeside pavilion built in a shape similar to a paddle-wheeler. It was made in 1755 with a base constructed from marble-like stone blocks and a wooden superstructure done in a traditional Chinese design and painted to imitate marble.
The Marble Boat. The base of the lakeside pavilion was built with marble-looking stone. The superstructure is wood painted to simulate marble and decorated with mirrors and paintings. Obviously, the boat cannot float; it was used by Empress Cixi for lakeside dinning and receptions.
The Bridge of Seventeen Arches was built in stone and stretches about 150 meters over Kunming Lake. The beautiful 8-meter-wide bridge connects the East Dike of Kunming Lake with Nanhu Dao or South Island, a little promontory built in the shape of a turtle. The railings on each side of the bridge are decorated with 544 carved stone lions. The Nanhu Islet has several structures of exquisite Chinese architecture among which are the Modesty Hall and the Dragon King Temple.
Lake Kunming at the Summer Palace. At the center-right is the Bridge of 17 Arches and at the far right, the Nanhu Islet.
The Summer Palace is an outstanding example of Chinese landscape gardening. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The Brief Description of UNESCO reads:
“The Summer Palace in Beijing – first built in 1750, largely destroyed in the war of 1860 and restored on its original foundations in 1886 – is a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.”
Creek and arch stone bridge next to a section of the 728 metre-long Long Corridor.
"The Garden of Health and Harmony" (Summer Palace) has been a public park since 1924. The Republic of China recognized its aesthetic and historical value and in 1949 began an extensive program of restoration of buildings and gardens returning the Summer Palace to its former magnificence. Now the park is a place of recreation for Beijing residents and one of the three major attractions of Beijing and vicinity for visitors from around the world. The other two major attractions (also rated AAAAA, the top category on China's national tourism scale) are The Forbidden City in downtown Beijing and the Great Wall of China at Badaling, located 80 kilometres away from the city.