Summer PalaceA ~ Z

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.

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The animal behind the big Taihu Rock is called Kylin or Qilin. According to ancient Chinese mythology, the dragon had nine sons, but none of them became a real dragon. Qilin was believed to be one of the nine sons of the dragon. It has the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the hooves of an ox, the tail of a lion and the body of a fish. It was put here to ward off evil spirits and detect any disloyal subjects.

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity

The same as the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, there had to be a throne hall for the emperor to handle state affairs in the Summer Palace. Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi used to hold audience and handle state affairs in the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. The name of the hall was taken from a famous Confucius doctrine: people who are benevolent could enjoy longevity. In the center of the building visitors can see the emperor’s throne carved with a nine-dragon design, symbolizing the supreme power of the emperor. Behind the throne, there are two big fans on both sides, which are made of peacock feather. Because the feather will never fade, they symbolize the dignity of the emperor. The plaque above the throne has four Chinese characters, which mean people who show benevolence in running the country could live a long life. All the things in front of the throne are made of cloisonné, and they are all incense burners. When the emperor was holding an audience, sandalwood and incense were being burnt in them to create mysterious atmosphere to fool people that they are the descendants of the God of Heaven. There are two scrolls on each side of the wall with a big Chinese character “Longevity”. There are also 100 bats painted on the background of the scroll symbolizing happiness. Because the word “bat” in Chinese has the same pronunciation as Happiness. And visitors could also see two big mirrors on either side of the building which are here to ward off evil spirits.

Hall of Jade Ripples

It was built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong who used to spend his leisure hours with his ministers and friends. In the late Qing Dynasty, it was Emperor Guangxu’s private living quarter. He was also put under house arrest here for ten years after the failure of the Hundred Day Reform Movement in 1898.


Yun is a kind of weed, which can prevent book moths or any other insects from eating books. Yi Yun means suitable for storing books. So during Emperor Qianlong’s reign, this building was used for storing books. During Emperor Guangxu’s reign, the main hall in the center of this courtyard was changed to be the residence of his wife. The west chamber was the residence of concubine Zhenfei, his favorite concubine. After the failure of the Reform Movement, Cixi ordered that Empress Longyu and concubine Zhenfei move to a house nearby the Marble Boat. Emperor Guangxu was put under house arrest and his residence, the Hall of Jade Ripples, was sealed up with brick walls. In this way, he could hardly see his girlfriends at will.

Hall of Happiness and Longevity

The Hall of Happiness and Longevity was Empress Dowager Cixi’s private living quarter when she was in the Summer Palace. After it was rebuilt in 1889, she lived here from April to October each year during the rest of her life. In the center of the hall, there is a large, long table for Cixi to have meals. She used to have a very extravagant life. For every single meal, 128 courses would be served. Of porridge alone, there were 30 kinds. The money she spent on a single meal was enough to feed 5,000 peasants for a whole day at that time. A pair of big porcelain plates is placed on each side of the long table for holding fruit. The fruit was not for eating but was for producing fragrance only. The chandeliers hanging up in the middle of the ceiling were presented by Germen. Installed in 1903, they are China’s earliest electrical lights.

Long Corridor

The Long Corridor actually is a long covered walkway. It is 728 meters long with 273 sections, so it is popularly known as “Long Corridor”. It is the longest covered walkway in the world. There are four pavilions in between, symbolizing the four seasons in a year. The Long Corridor was first built in 1750 by Emperor Qianlong for his mother to enjoy the rainy scenes on Kunming Lake and to shade her from the sunshine in summer. There are more than 14,000 pictures painted on the beams and crossbeams of the long corridor, so it is also called the longest art gallery in the world. The paintings on the Long Corridor cover a wide range of subjects from birds, flowers, trees, mountains, rivers and human figures. The most fascinating ones are the paintings depicting Chinese historical figures, folk and legendary stories and the scenes from traditional operas. All of these cover thousands of years of Chinese history. The beautiful flowers, birds, and landscapes were copied from the scenery of the West Lake in Hangzhou which was done by the court artists who followed Qianlong during his inspection trips to the south of the Yangtze River. In 1990, it was listed in the “Guinness World Records” as the longest painted corridor in the world.

Temple of Sea of Wisdom

The Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, a stone structure, is located on the top of the Longevity Hill, just behind the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The name of it comes from Buddhist scriptures and means the wisdom of Buddha is as vast as sea. The temple was built entirely with bricks, stone and glazed tiles in 1750. It is also known as “Beamless Hall” because it was built without using a single beam or column. With the yellow and green colored glazed tiles outside, there used to be rows of 1,008 exquisite Buddha statues carved on the outer wall of the temple. But when the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860, and Allied Forces of Eight Powers in 1900, entered the Summer Palace, the soldiers damaged most of the Buddha statues that they could reach by bayonets.

Bronze Pavilion

To the west of the Tower of Buddhist Incense, there are a group of buildings known as Five Square Pavilions. There are four small pavilions in four corners connected with galleries on four sides. The famous Bronze Pavilion is placed in the center on a base of carved marble. The name of Five Square Pavilions is adopted from Buddhist Scripture which means that it embodies the colors from all directions, representing peace and prosperity of the world. The Bronze Pavilion was cast in 1755, and used to be the place where Lamas chanted scriptures during religious activities. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, on the 1st and 15th day of each lunar month, the Lamas prayed here in honor of the emperor and the imperial family.


Down to the east below the Tower of Buddhist Incense is the Zhuanlunzang. It mainly consists of three parts: the main building in the middle, with two side-pavilions on both sides, and a large stone tablet in front of the main building. The big stone tablet was erected in 1751 which is about 10 meters high with six Chinese characters “Longevity Hill, Kunming Lake” carved on the front side. The main building behind the tablet was a religious building where the Emperor and Empress kept copies of Confucian classics, Buddhist scriptures and Buddha portraits. It was also the place where emperor and empress chanted scriptures and prayed. On the roof of the main building stand three glazed figures representing Happiness, Emolument and Longevity.

Hall of Listening to Orioles

It used to be a two-story stage built by Emperor Qianlong for his mother Empress Dowager Niugulushi to enjoy Peking Opera. After the Grand Theatre was completed, it became the residence for Emperor Guangxu’s favorite concubine Zhenfei, who was also a strong supporter of the Hundred Day Reform Movement. Now it is one of the few restaurants that serve Imperial Cuisine in Beijing.

Pavilion of Rambling in Pictures

The Pavilion of Rambling in Pictures is located in the west front slope of the Longevity Hill, to the west of the Tower of Buddhist Incense. It is an octagonal two-story open pavilion in which people could enjoy beautiful scenery through each open side. Viewing the scenery from each open side is like looking at a vivid framed picture that makes the visitors feel like strolling through a picture.

Marble Boat

The Marble Boat is located at the end of the Long Corridor, which was built in 1755, during Emperor Qianlong’s reign. It used to represent the stability and eternality of the Qing dynasty. The Marble Boat was built based on a story that happened in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Prime Minister Wei Zheng expostulated with Emperor Li Shimin, the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), about the water and the boat, by saying “Water can carry a boat, it also can capsize it.” He put the water there to represent common people and the boat indicated the Tang Dynasty Court. The Marble Boat was built by following this allusion, therefore it stood for the stability of the Qing Dynasty and symbolized that the Qing Dynasty would be as solid as rock and never be overthrown. The Marble Boat is 36 meters long with two decks. The base was built of large stone blocks of marble, while the upper part was made of wood. Originally, during the time of the Garden of Clear Ripples, there was a Chinese-style wooden superstructure built on the top of the boat which was painted to look like marble. But the wooden superstructure was burnt down by the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860. In 1893, when Empress Dowager Cixi had the Marble Boat rebuilt, she ordered to have two water wheels added outside the Marble Boat, one on each side, for the imitation of a steamship. Then a European-style wooden superstructure was built on the boat, which was painted to look like marble. Each floor has a big mirror for reflecting the ripples in the lake during rainy days. Sitting in front of the mirror, the Emperor or Empress Dowager Cixi would feel as if they were floating on the lake.

Four Great Regions

At the back of the Longevity Hill, there is a massive group of Tibetan-style buildings known as “Four Great Regions”. They are Buddhist temples and halls with Buddhist statues and arhats inside, glazed tile pagodas with Buddhist statues, all for religious activities. The Four Great Regions were built during the Qing Dynasty by Emperor Qianlong. Sadly they were destroyed by the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860, and were reconstructed in 1986 by the Chinese government. According to Buddhist theory, the earth is divided into four regions in the Buddhist world. These regions where mankind lives are named: East, West, North and South. Emperor Qianlong built this religious area in the imperial garden to show his conciliation policy towards the minority nationalities.

Garden of Harmonious

The Garden of Harmonious is also known as “the Garden within a Garden”, a typical garden in the Qing Dynasty. It was built to imitate the famous “Jichang Garden” in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. The garden was burnt down by Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860 and was rebuilt by Empress Dowager Cixi. When she stayed in the Summer Palace, she used to come here to enjoy fishing or take a nap after watching the Peking Opera in the Grand Theatre.

South Lake Island

The South Lake Island is the biggest island on Kunming Lake. It is located on the eastern part of Kunming Lake and linked with the East Dike by the 17-Arch Bridge. Beautiful buildings, halls, pavilions and towers were built on the island with old pine trees and cypresses. It is also called the Penglai Fairland, the home of legendary immortals.


Facing the Tower of Buddhist Incense in the distance, on the northern part of the South Lake Island, there is a big hall with a platform in the front, named Hanxutang. It was the place where Empress Dowager Cixi led Emperor Guangxu to watch the navy training on the lake.

Temple of the Dragon King

There is a statue of the Dragon King which has a golden face and wears a green robe in the Temple of the Dragon King. It is placed in the middle of the temple with a human body and dragon head. The Dragon King was believed to be the God of Rain in ancient Chinese mythology. In ancient times, people practiced the custom of building the temple of the Dragon King on the bank of a river or a lake to control water. It is said that in 1787 Emperor Qianlong, at the age of 80, came here in person to pray for rain. Soon after, ran poured down in torrents that night. He came here again the following day to have a big ceremony to show his gratitude to the Dragon King. Until the end of the Qing Dynasty, the emperor came to the Temple of Dragon King every year in person or sent high ranking officials here to worship.

Seventeen-Arch Bridge

The Seventeen-Arch Bridge is the largest bridge in the Summer Palace which is 150 meters long and 8 meters wide with 17 arches. There are 544 stone lions in different sizes and postures carved on the top of the balusters. It was built in 1750 and believed to be an imitation of the famous Marco Polo Bridge. The number 17 was used because when seen from either the left or right, the ninth arch is just in the middle. In the old days, the number 9 was the number for power.

Kuoru Pavilion

Located at the eastern end of the Seventeen-Arch Bridge, the Kuoru Pavilion is a wooden structure of unusual size. It is an eight-sided and double-eaved pavilion with a space of 300 square meters which makes it the largest pavilion in China. During the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong and his scholars often drank wine and composed poetry here. Tablets with Emperor Qianlong’s poems, and couplets written by the scholars in response, are still hung in this pavilion now.

Bronze Ox

To the east of Seventeen-Arch Bridge is the famous Bronze Ox which was used in ancient China as a symbol of flood control. In the Xia Dynasty, more than 4,000 years ago, it was one of the Chinese traditional customs that whenever and wherever a flood was brought under control, people would throw a big iron ox into the river-bed, assuming that the flood could be controlled forever in this way.

Wenchang Tower

Wenchang Tower is a two-story tower building in the shape of a city gate. The bronze statue of the God of Literature Prosperity is enshrined inside. It stands at the northern end of the East Dyke with a civil god in it, while there is a tower named Suyunzhan Tower located at the west of the lake with a statue of Guan Yu, a military god in it. This layout symbolized that the Qing Dynasty was assisted with civil god in the east and military god in the west.

Wenchang Courtyard

Wenchang Courtyard is located to the east of the Wenchang Tower. It is the largest and highest-rank of exhibition house in the Chinese imperial gardens. There are six theme rooms, exhibiting thousands of historical relics from the 17th century BC to 1900, including artifacts of bronze, jade, porcelain, gold, lacquer, calligraphy and painting, as well as daily commodities of the imperial Qing court. They represent the highest craftsmanship in China, and some of them are the National Treasures.

Grand Theatre

Construction of the Grand Theatre started in 1891 and ended in 1895, just to celebrate the 60th birthday of Empress Dowager Cixi. It mainly consists three parts: the Theatre, a two-story make-up room and Yiledian. The Theatre is a three-story building with upturned eaves. It is 21 meters high and 17 meters wide, the biggest one among the three opera theatres built during the Qing dynasty. Performances could be staged simultaneously on three stories. The top story represents Happiness, the middle for Emolument and the bottom symbolizes Longevity. Yiledian is just across from the stage where Empress Dowager Cixi used to sit to watch performances. Placed in the center of the room, a gilded lacquered throne and a screen designed with 100 birds paying homage to the phoenix were gifts for Cixi’s 70th birthday. The make-up room was also called backstage which is being used as an exhibition room. The colorful costumes of Peking Opera, a music box, an old piano, a portrait of Cixi painted by a Dutch-American artist are on display inside. There are also two yellow rickshaws in the middle of the room presented by Japanese as gifts to Cixi. It is said that only the Emperor and Empress could use the yellow ones, top officials take blue and ordinary officials use red or green rickshaws. The highlight in the room is the vintage car given by Yuan Shikai in the middle of the two rickshaws. It is the first car imported in China, but Cixi never used it because she could not tolerate the driver sitting in front of her.

Hall of Dispelling Clouds

It was the place where Empress Dowager Cixi used to celebrate her birthday on the 10th day of the tenth lunar month each year. Originally she planned to live here, but some officials said it was a little bit too close to the temple. So she chose to live in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity instead, because she dared not to offend the Buddha. Inside the hall, there is a large oil painting of Empress Dowager Cixi. It was painted in 1905 to celebrate her 70th birthday. The artist painted the 70-year-old woman as a lady in her forties or fifties just to please her. Most of the items on display in this hall are gifts from the ministers for her 70th birthday.

Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Tower of Buddhist Incense, the symbol of the Summer Palace was first built in 1758, and damaged in 1860 and 1900 respectively. The present one was rebuilt in 1903 according to its original design. It was built on a 20 meter high square platform of solid stone, with a wooden tower of 41 meters on the top. According to its original plan, a nine-story tower, which was designed after the famous Six Harmonious Tower in Hangzhou was supposed to be built here. Just before the completion of the project, when the eighth story was completed, Emperor Qianlong came for inspection and he found that the tower was too high to fit with the surrounding buildings on the hill. So construction had to be stopped and a three-story tower was built instead. Empress Dowager Cixi used to come and worship Gods here on the 1st and 15th day of each lunar month when she was in the Summer Palace. There used to be a wooden Buddhist Statue on the first floor, but was damaged. Right now, the statue of Guanyin Bodhisattva is enshrined inside.

Suzhou Street

Emperor Qianlong made several inspection tours to the South part of China during his lifetime. He was impressed by the commercial prosperity of the shopping street along the canals in Suzhou (one of the most popular tourist cities in China and famous for its waterways and gardens). So he ordered the court artists to imitate the shopping street and build it along the back lake in the Garden of Clear Ripples. But it was destroyed together with the imperial garden in 1860 by the Anglo-French Allied Forces. The Chinese government started to restore the Suzhou Street in 1986 and completed it in 1991. Locating in the middle of the back lake, the Suzhou Street runs over 300 meters with 64 shops, 14 archways and 8 small bridges. All the buildings in Suzhou Street were built and decorated in the Qing style and furnished with classical Chinese furniture. The eunuchs and palace maids used to disguise as sellers when the emperor visited the Summer Palace.

Danning Hall

Built in 1754 by Emperor Qianlong, the Danning Hall used to be his private study room. It is located to the east of northern slope of Longevity Hill, connecting the Suzhou Street by water way to the west. Danning Hall was burned down by the Anglo-French allied forces in 1860 and hasn’t been restored in the late Qing Dynasty. In 1996, the Chinese government rebuilt it according to its original design and opened it to the public in 1998. Now it serves as an exhibition room with some very precious furniture from the imperial court of the Ming and Qing Dynasties on display.

Additional Information

A Big Pool with Three Hills

The layout of the Summer Palace is based on an ancient Chinese legend “A Big Pool with Three Hills”. According to the legend, there were supposed to be three islands called Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang to the east of Bohai Bay, where people believed that the Gods lived. One of the islands was called Penglai Island where a kind of Chinese herbal medicine grew, which was supposed to prolong people’s lives. Emperor Qinshihuang, the first emperor of the Qin (221-207BC) Dynasty, wanted to have a long life and live forever, so he sent lots of people to Penglai Island looking for the Chinese herbal longevity medicine, but they failed and never came back. In the Han (202BC-220AD) Dynasty, Emperor Wudi also wanted to live an eternal life. After failing to find the herbal longevity medicine, he ordered people to dig a big pool at the back of his palace with three artificial hills representing the three Fairland Mountains of Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang. After that, it became a traditional legendary style of gardening followed by one dynasty after another. The Summer Palace was also built in this traditional style.

Emperor Guangxu

Emperor Guangxu (1871–1908) was the eleventh emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and the ninth Qing emperor to rule over China. His reign lasted from 1875 to 1908, but in practice he ruled, under Empress Dowager Cixi's influence, only from 1889 to 1898. He initiated the Hundred Days' Reform, but was brutally repressed by Cixi in 1898, after which he was put under house arrest for the rest of his life. Guangxu was the second son of Yixuan, Prince Chun, and his primary spouse Wanzhen, a younger sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. On 12 January 1875, Guangxu's cousin, Emperor Tongzhi, died of small pox without a son. Empress Dowager Ci'an (First wife of Emperor Xianfeng) suggested enthroning one of Yixin, Prince Gong's sons as the next emperor, but she was overruled by Cixi. Instead, breaking the imperial convention that a new emperor must always be of a generation after that of the previous emperor, Cixi nominated her nephew. Guangxu was named heir and successor to his uncle, the Xianfeng Emperor, rather than his cousin and predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, so as to maintain the father-son succession law. He was adopted by Empress Dowager Cixi as a son. For her part, she remained as regent under the title "Holy Mother Empress Dowager". In 1881, when Guangxu was nine, Dowager Empress Ci'an died unexpectedly, leaving Cixi as sole regent for the boy. However, Cixi had been suffering from long-standing ill-health. During this time, the imperial eunuchs often abused their influence over the boy-emperor. In 1887, Emperor Guangxu would have been old enough to begin to reign in his own right. However, the previous year, several courtiers, including Prince Chun and Weng Tonghe, had petitioned the empress dowager to postpone her retirement from the regency. Despite Cixi's agreement to remain as regent, Guangxu, by 1886, had begun to write comments on the palace memorials. In the spring of 1887, he partook in his first field plowing ceremony, and by the end of the year, had begun to rule under the supervision of Cixi. Even after Guangxu began formal rule, Empress Dowager Cixi continued to influence his decisions and actions, despite residing several months of the year at the Summer Palace. In June 1898, Guangxu began the Hundred Days' Reform, aimed at a series of sweeping political, legal, and social changes. For a brief time, after the supposed retirement of Empress Dowager Cixi, Guangxu issued edicts for a massive number of far-reaching modernising reforms with the help of more progressive ministers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. The reforms, however, were not only too sudden for a China still under significant neo-Confucian influence and other elements of traditional culture, but also came into conflict with Cixi, who held real power. Many officials, deemed useless and dismissed by Guangxu, were begging Cixi for help. Although Cixi did nothing to stop the Hundred Days' Reform from taking place, she knew the only way to secure her power base was to stage a military coup. After the failure of the Hundred Days Reform, Emperor Guangxu was put under house arrest. Guangxu died on 14 November 1908, a day before Empress Dowager Cixi. He died relatively young, at the age of 37. For a long time there were several theories about Guangxu's death, none of which was completely accepted by historians. Most were inclined to maintain that Guangxu was poisoned by Cixi (herself very ill) because she was afraid of Guangxu reversing her policies after her death, and wanted to prevent this from happening. The fact that the two died a day apart is significant. Another possibility is that Guangxu was poisoned by Yuan Shikai, who knew that if Guangxu were to ever come to power again, Yuan would likely be executed for treason. There are no reliable sources to prove who murdered the Guangxu Emperor. In 1911, Cixi's former eunuch Li Lianying was murdered, possibly by Yuan, implying that they had conspired in the emperor's murder. This theory was offered by Puyi in his biography, who claimed he heard it from an old eunuch. The medical records kept by the Guangxu Emperor's physician indicate the emperor suffered from "spells of violent stomachache", and that his face would turn blue, typical symptoms of arsenic poisoning. To dispel persistent rumors that the emperor had been poisoned, the Qing court produced documents and doctors' records suggesting that Guangxu died from natural causes, but these did not successfully divert suspicion. On 4 November 2008, forensic tests revealed that the level of arsenic in the Guangxu Emperor's remains was 2,000 times higher than that of ordinary people. Scientists concluded that the poison could only be administered in a high dose one time. Emperor Guangxu was succeeded by Empress Dowager Cixi's choice as heir, his nephew Puyi, who took the regnal name "Xuantong".

Empress Dowager Cixi,final

Empress Dowager Cixi was born in 1835 to a Manchurian middle class family. Her father was a provincial official in south China. In 1851, at the age of 16, she was selected as one of the palace maids for Emperor Xianfeng, the 7th Qing Emperor (reigned 1851-1861). With the help of the eunuch, she was gradually favored by the emperor, and her position in the palace was gradually upgraded too. Later, she was made a concubine of the fifth rank. Since she had more opportunities to stay with the emperor than other concubines, she gave birth to a son in 1856, the only son of the emperor, and then she was promoted to an “Imperial Concubine” of the second rank. In 1860, when the Anglo-French Allied Forces invaded Beijing, Emperor Xianfeng escaped to the Summer Resort in Rehe, Chengde city today, with his wife and concubines. However, in 1861, Emperor Xianfeng died of illness in Rehe, so his six year old son Zai Chun succeeded the throne with the reign title “Tong Zhi”. Thanks to her son’s enthronement, Cixi was upgraded and given the tile of Empress Dowager. Since the boy emperor was only six years old, according to the will of the deceased emperor, the little emperor had eight ministers to assist him. However, the ambitious Empress Dowager Cixi tried her best to get rid of the officials around her. She staged a palace coup, usurped the power, and began ruling together with Empress Dowager Cian, the first wife of Emperor Xianfeng. A yellow gauze curtain was hung between the boy emperor and the two Empress Dowagers, because women were now allowed to take part in politics publicly in China at that time. While the boy emperor sat on the throne in the front, Empress Dowager Cixi would tell him what to say and what to do behind the curtain. In this way, he was actually a puppet emperor with all the important decisions made by the Empress Dowagers behind the curtain. This way of ruling the state affairs was called “Power behind the Curtain” in Chinese history. In 1873, at the age of 18, Emperor Tongzhi got married and began to rule the country on his own. But unfortunately, in 1874, the young emperor died of small pox at the age of 19. Since Emperor Tongzhi had no son, an adopted crown prince should be chose for him, who later became the emperor. But Empress Dowager Cixi chose her younger sister’s son, a boy of four years old, as her adopted son to be the successor, who later became Emperor Guangxu. In this way, she could once again continue to sit behind the curtain and rule China. Soon afterwards, Emperor Tongzhi’s wife, Empress Aluteshi, suffered from persecutions by Empress Dowager Cixi and committed suicide by swallowing gold. Soon after that, Empress Dowager Cian died of illness too. Then Empress Dowager Cixi began to rule the country on her own. In 1898, when Emperor Guangxu was twenty-eight years old, he accepted the reforms advocated by some famous scholars in order to modernize China. When he tried to carry out the Reform Policy, Empress Dowager Cixi, with the political and military power in her hand, was strongly against the Reform Movement. She declared that she “Would rather lose the country than carry out the Reform”. The Reform Movement lasted only 103 days and then was brutally suppressed by Empress Dowager Cixi. So, in Chinese history, the Movement was also known as the “Hundred Day Reform”. After that, Emperor Guangxu was kept under house arrest for ten years until his death in 1908. Six scholars were executed and a few others escaped to Japan. Thus, the famous Reform Movement of 1898 ended with failure. And then, Empress Dowager Cixi, tearing away the curtain, began to rule directly by herself with Emperor Guangxu, an emperor in name only, sitting by her side. Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908 at the age of 73, just one day after Emperor Guangxu’s death. She ruled China for a total of 48 years, plunging China into disasters and humiliations unparalleled in Chinese history. Before she died, she put three years old Puyi, nephew of Emperor Guangxu onto the throne. Puyi was the 10th and last emperor of the Qing Dynasty and also the last emperor of the Chinese feudal society. In 1911, the Qing Dynasty, also the last dynasty, was overthrown by the Revolution led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

Hundred Day Reform Movement

The Hundred Day Reform Movement is a political reformist movement of the bourgeoisie. In 1898, some bourgeois reformists, represented by Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, Tan Sitong, Yan Fu and some other scholars, launched the movement for the modernization of China. They tried to carry out a new policy in China with the support of Emperor Guangxu. But Empress Dowager Cixi, the person in power then, was strongly against it. Emperor Guangxu was the nephew of Cixi. After Emperor Tongzhi, the only son of Cixi, died in 1875, Guangxu was appointed by her to ascend the throne at the age of 4, with Cixi sitting behind the screen telling him what to say and what to do. In 1898, at the age of 28, Guangxu met the reformists and decided to support them to get power back. He secretly called in Yuan Shikia, a warlord, and ordered him to kill Yonglu, a close follower of Cixi. Yuan promised to kill Ronglu and said that killing him was just as easy as killing a dog. But, on the other hand, he reported it to Cixi. At that time, Emperor Guangxu was just a puppet emperor without any power, while Cixi, with both political and military power in control, declared that she would rather lose the country than carry out the reform. After Cixi staged a coup, six reformists were beheaded and Guangxu was put under house arrest for ten years and died in 1908 at the age of 38. The reform movement lasted only for 103 days, so it was also called the “Hundred Day Reform Movement” in Chinese history.

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¥ 20 (Nov. - Mar.)

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No.19 Xinjiangongmen Road, Haidian District, Beijing


Getting There


Line 4 Xinjiangongmen Exit D



(Please take me to the East Gate of the Summer Palace)

Travel Tips

You can take a boat from the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace Beautiful View en route (Apr.-Oct.)

Last Updated

2018-05-05 16:56:30

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