Summer Palace Facts

The Summer Palace, Yiheyuan in Chinese, is a former imperial palace and now a park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the northwestern outskirts of Beijing. It is the largest and most famous imperial garden in China. The palace features hundreds of architecturally distinct buildings, halls, pavilions, pagodas, bridges and corridors dispersed among magnificent and elegant gardens. It has an area of 290 hectares (717 acres), three quarters of which is water. The palace has three unique areas: Court Area, Longevity Hill Area and Kunming Lake Area.

In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace "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." It is a popular tourist destination but also serves as a recreational park.

The Archway in Summer Palace

History of Beijing Summer Palace

The history of Summer Palace extends as far back as 800 years. In 115 B.C, when the Jin Dynasty made Beijing--then called Yanjing-- its capital, it built an imperial palace that was then referred to as the Golden Hill Palace. The structure still remains on the present site of what residents and tourists both recognize as the Summer Palace of Beijing.

In 1750, Emperor Qianlong paid 4.48 million taels of silver, an equivalent of 140,000 kilograms, to invest in building the Garden of Clear Ripples. After a period of fifteen years, however, Emperor Qianlong made a decision to change the name of the hill to Longevity Hill in order to celebrate his mother’s birthday. He also named the nearby lake, Lake Kunming, because he wanted to follow the example of former Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty (156BC-87BC), who reigned from 140 B.C to 87 B.C. In these times, he also trained his army in the present day area of Xidan on the grounds of what many historians and tourists now know as Kunming Pool, 206 BC-220 AD.

In the year 1900, Summer Palace was invaded and ravaged by allied opposition forces who invaded China around this time. Much of the damage, however, was repaired and the structure was close to being fully recovered by 1902. Summer Palace subsequently became the residence of the Dowager Empress Cixi who spent a great deal of funding developing and beautifying the scenery and the surrounding areas of the palace.

With great reflections and beautiful scenery of endless tales, Summer Palace remains to be one of the most widely visited places in Beijing. It is likely to grow in popularity as a scenic spot as the next decade brings more and more travelers into Beijing for both sightseeing and a cultural appreciation for historic landmarks.

Inside the Garden of Virtue and Harmony of Summer Palace

Court Area

It is located in the northeast of the Summer Palace, and it spreads from East Palace Gate to the northeast coast of Kunming Lake. Inside is a group of typical courtyard houses connected by porches. The center building is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity where Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi met officials and conducted state affairs. Now, an exquisitely carved screen, a bronze dragon and bronze phoenix are on display. To the northwest are three halls: the Hall of Jade Ripples where Guangxu lived; the Hall of Virtue and Harmony, the biggest theater in the Qing Dynasty; and the Hall of Joyful Longevity, a splendid residence of Empress Dowager Cixi. To the northeast is the Garden of Harmony and Enchantment. This was where the emperors spent their leisure time fishing.

Longevity Hill Area

Longevity Hill is about 60 meters (200 feet) high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is rich with splendid halls and pavilions, while the back hill, in sharp contrast, is quiet with natural beauty.

The Longevity Hill Area faces the Kunming Lake in the south and is backed by the Rear Lake (Houhu) in the north. In the front hill, grand halls are built along a north-south axis. The halls are the Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom. The Hall of Dispelling Clouds, with red pillars and yellow tiles, is the most splendid building of the whole palace. The grand Tower of Buddhist Incense, towering 41 meters (134.5 feet), is the symbol of the Summer Palace. The Hall of the Sea of Wisdom on the top of the Longevity Hill is a Buddhist hall. The outside of the hall is decorated with glazed tiles. There is a Suzhou Market Street (Suzhoujie) at the Rear Lake. With waterway passing through and shops perching on banks, the street looks like the very scene of 'Water Country' in the south region of the Yangtze River.

Tower of Buddhist Incense in Summer Palace Beijing

Kunming Lake Area

Kunming Lake, once a natural lake where numerous mountain springs in the northwest of Beijing converged, was previously known as Great Lake, Jar Hill Lake, etc. After Beijing became the capital city of the Yuan Dynasty, Guo Shoujing, an expert in irrigation works at the time, supervised the redirection of the spring water from the Divine Mountains in Changping to the lake. The spring water, drawing in the tributary waters along the way, made the lake into a reservoir that greatly facilitated the transportation of grain.

During the Ming Dynasty, a large number of lotus flowers were planted in the lake. In the surrounding area were rice paddies, temples, pavilions and other finely built structures, creating a great view that resembled the landscape of south China. For this reason it became known as the West Lake, after its namesake in the southern city of Hangzhou. With construction of the Garden of Clear Ripples during Emperor Qianlong's reign (1736-1795), the lake was expanded to its current size. Emperor Qianlong then named it "Kunming", inspired by Emperor Liuche of the Han Dynasty, who once constructed an artificial lake called the "Kunming Pool" to practice battles on the water.

The current lake covers an area of over 200 hectares, making up three quarters of the whole garden. In accordance with the "three islands in one pool" principle for the design of water features in imperial gardens, three islands were built on the lake, namely, the "South Lake Island", the "Mirror of Government Tower" and the "Hall of Recognition of Talent Island". The West Causeway, imitating the Su Causeway of the West Lake in Hangzhou, was also constructed. The glistening waters, the meandering banks, well-arranged islands, and a host of architectural structures in different styles, both near and far, all combine to present a wonderful view of the Summer Palace landscape, a view dominated by Kunming Lake. Scientific research in the 1990s showed that the lake dates back over 3,500 years.

Wenchang Tower in the Summer Palace

Buildings in Summer Palace

On its southern slope, Longevity Hill is adorned with an ensemble of grand buildings: The Cloud-Dispelling Hall, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, and the Sea of Wisdom Temple form a south-north (lakeside - peak) oriented axis which is flanked by various other buildings. In the center of the Temple of Buddhist Virtue stands the Tower of Buddhist Incense (Fo Xiang Ge), this forms the focal point for the buildings on the southern slope of Longevity Hill. The tower is built on a 20-meter-tall stone base, is 41 meters high with three stories and supported by eight ironwood (lignumvitae) pillars.

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