Introducing the Summer Palace (Yi He Yuan)
The Summer Palace is one of the largest Imperial Gardens in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and by far the best preserved one in China now. On November 30th 1998, it was listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. The Summer Palace is located in the northwest outskirt of Beijing, about 20 kilometers away from the center of Beijing, the Tiananmen Square. With a total space of 300 hectares, it mainly consists two parts: the Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake, which occupies one quarter and three quarters of the total area respectively. The Longevity Hill is an extension of the Western Hills. While Kunming Lake used to get water from the springs of Jade Spring Hill, which lies to its west. The Kunming Lake now gets water from Miyun Reservoir, northeast of Beijing, about 102 kilometers away. The peak of the Western Hills and Pagoda on Jade Spring Hill can be seen in the distance, which is a typical technique for garden-building in China, known as “Borrowing Scenery”.
The Summer Palace has a history of over 800 years, which dates back to the Liao (907-1125) and Jin (1115-1234) Dynasties. It was first built at the beginning of the 12th century. In 1153, when the Jin Dynasty chose Beijing its Central Capital (called Yanjing then) , they started to build a temporary palace on the present site of the Summer Palace where the hill was called Golden Hill, so the palace was called Golden Hill Palace. The lake located at the foot of the Golden Hill got its water from the Jade Spring Hill and was called Golden Water Pond.
In the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), the name of the hill was changed to Jar Hill, because it was said that an old man had dug up a jar from the hill. And then the lake was called Jar Hill Pond. In order to develop the water transportation system in the Yuan Capital, the Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-1294) ordered Guo Shoujing, a famous hydraulic expert to supervise the project of bringing water from Shenshan Mountain in Changping (northern outskirt of Beijing), to the Jade Spring Hill which was to the west of the Summer Palace. Then the water was brought to Jar Hill Pond which was expanded into a vast pool, and finally the water was led to the city of Yuan Capital.
In the early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), it was called West Lake. Later, Emperor Hongzhi, the 9th Ming Emperor (reigned 1488-1505), built Yuanjing Temple on the Jar Hill in 1494 to pray for the longevity of his wet nurse. Following that, Emperor Zhengde, the 10th Ming Emperor (reigned 1506-1521), who was fond of visiting the outstanding places with natural beauty, named this area the Wonderful Imperial Garden (Haoshanyuan) and then built an Imperial Residence by the lake. So the natural beauty of the hill and pond became the most ideal place for the emperor to stay.
When the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) entered its flourishing period, the building of imperial gardens reached its culmination. During Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1736-1796), the famous “Three Hills and Five Gardens” were built or enlarged under the emperor’s own personal supervision in the northwestern suburb of Beijing. The Summer Palace was called the Garden of Clear Ripples at that time. In 1750, in order to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday, Emperor Qianlong ordered the rebuilding of the Garden of Clear Ripples. The Ming Dynasty Temple on the hill, Yuanjing Temple, was demolished and the Temple of Paying Great Gratitude for Longevity was built on the hill instead. The following year, Emperor Qianlong changed the name of the hill from Jar Hill to Longevity Hill for his mother’s 60th birthday. At the same time, the lake was expanded eastwards, so the size and the depth of the lake were greatly increased. Emperor Qianlong also renamed the lake to Kunming Lake to take after Emperor Wu Di in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) who trained his navy centuries before in Kunming Pool in Chang’an, the capital then (near Xi’an today).
The whole construction project took 15 years and was completed in 1764, which was the last stage in the construction of the “Three Hills and Five Gardens”. In the Garden of Clear Ripples, most of the buildings, pavilions, towers and courtyards are imitations of the southern scenery of China. In his lifetime, Emperor Qianlong made six trips to the south of the Yangtze River for inspection. He loved the small and exquisite gardens of southern style architecture very much. Wherever he saw a beautiful place, a scenic spot or a garden that suited his fancy, he would order the court painters to sketch a picture that would later be used as a reference for the construction of the garden in Beijing. That is why people can see the skillful combination of southern ideas and northern traditions in the Summer Palace’s classic architectures. In 1860, the Anglo-French Allied Forces invaded Beijing and the “Three Hills and Five Gardens” were burnt down to ashes. During the Anglo-French invasion in 1860, the 7th Qing Emperor Xianfeng (reigned1851-1861) escaped to Rehe (Chengde city now), northeast of Beijing, with his wife and concubines. Emperor Xianfeng died there the next year in 1861. The successor was his six-year-old son Zaichun, whose mother was Empress Dowager Cixi. After a palace coup, Empress Dowager Cixi came into power and began to exercise her power behind the curtain.
In 1888, during the Qing Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1875-1908), Empress Dowager Cixi spent a fabulous sum of money having the Garden of Clear Ripples rebuilt. The money she spent to rebuild the Garden was pinched from the imperial navy fund, earmarked for the development of the Imperial Navy, and then she renamed it the Summer Palace. In order to deceive the public, Empress Dowager Cixi embezzled the navy funds to have the Garden rebuilt under the excuse of setting up a navy academy inside. The lack of a well-trained navy was the direct cause of the Chinese defeat in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. In 1900, the Allied Forces of Eight Powers invaded Beijing and the Summer Palace was once again severely damaged. Empress Dowager Cixi escaped to Xi’an together with Emperor Guangxu, so the invaders occupied the Summer Palace for almost one year. They took everything valuable and destroyed most of the buildings, temples and halls, even the stone statues on the wall of the temple. In 1902, Empress Dowager Cixi came back Beijing and immediately ordered the garden rebuilt. A big sum of money was spent to have the Summer Palace reconstructed the second time. The reconstruction was completed in the following year in 1903. After that, Empress Dowager Cixi came to live in the Summer Palace from April to October every year for the rest of her life. The Summer Palace became not only her summer resort, but also the secondary imperial palace for running China.
The Summer Palace today is more or less the same as the Summer Palace that was rebuilt in 1903. Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. After the 1911 Revolution, the articles of Favorable Treatment signed by the new Republic Government, stipulated that the Summer Palace still belonged to the Qing imperial family. In 1914, as a private Imperial Garden of Emperor Puyi, the Summer Palace was opened to those people who could afford the hefty admission fee. After the last Emperor Puyi was kicked out of the Forbidden City in 1924, the Summer Palace was changed from an imperial garden into a public park. On July 1st, 1928, the Summer Palace was officially opened to the public.