Summer Palace (15 kilometers northwest of central Beijing, about 5 kilometers northwest of Beijing University, Subway Line 4, Xiyuan and Beigongmen Stations) was a secondary imperial residence located on the outskirts of Beijing. It is where the Emperors and Empresses used to go to escape Beijing's oppressive summertime heat. The Summer Palace was a grand imperial palace and a royal garden built primarily in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Construction of the began in 1750. Located at a higher elevation than Beijing and rebuilt after it was destroyed by European troops in 1860, it features many lovely temples, wooded hills, courtyards, gardens and imperial residences with red columns and wood panels painted with landscapes.

The Summer Palace occupies an area of 290 hectares, embracing a hill, called Longevity Hill and a lake, Kunming Lake, with halls, towers, galleries, pavilions, bridges and islands dotted all over the land, hill and lake. Blending southern China-style garden architecture with northern China's natural landscapes, the gardens are probably the best of their kind in Chinese garden architecture.

Known to the Chinese as Yiheyen, the Summer Palace contains tens of thousands of precious cultural relics. It has 3,000 rooms and covers an expanse of 17.3 acres, with more than 100 picturesque sites of interest. The palace buildings are situated in an attractive landscaped garden park that is three quarters water and regarded as an outstanding example of imperial gardens in classical Chinese style. The most interesting feature is the 700-meter-long Long Corridor, a covered pathway that is decorated with more than 8,000 images of flowers, birds and historical and mythological scenes, the most delightful of which are the landscape paintings inside the Hall or Regular Clouds.

The Empress Dowager Cixi spent much of her time here and retired here in 1889. At the end of the Long Corridor is the famous 26-meter-long, double decker marble boat which was built in 1888 with funds bilked by the Dowager Empress Cixi from the Chinese Navy. The money she took was supposed to be spent on building a modern navy, a move that was partly responsible for decisive Chinese defeats at the hands of the Japanese navy that lead to the demise of Imperial China. A path from the Long Corridor lead to Paiyundian, where Cixi enjoyed here extravagant birthday parties. On display are some of her birthday presents. She used to fish in the lotus-filled ponds at the Garden of Harmonious Interest. To make sure she caught fish eunuch used to swim in the pond and catch fish and attach them her hook.

The Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. According to UNESCO: 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. [Source: UNESCO]

Web Sites: UNESCO article Wikipedia article: Wikipedia ; Beijing Trip ; Travel China Guide . Location: No.19,Xinjiangongmen Road,Haidian District; 15 kilometers northwest of central Beijing, about 5 kilometers northwest of Beijing University;. Tel: +86 10 6288 1144 Admission: 30 yuan (US$4.73) per person (summer); 20 yuan (US$3.15) per person (winter) Getting There: Subway Line 4, Xiyuan and Beigongmen Stations. You can also ride a bicycle, take a bus or taxi or go as part of an organized tour. Public buses are cheap but the trip can take 1½ hours one way. A taxi costs about 50 yuan one way. Beware of rip off taxi drivers on the way back

History of the Summer Palace

20080217-eunuchs Qing dynasty, China Today.jpg
Empress Cixi's eunuchs
The first imperial buildings and gardens in the area were constructed in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), the Summer Palace and its gardens were extended continuously. By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it had become a luxurious royal garden providing royal families with rest and entertainment.Originally called ‘Qingyi Garden’ (The Garden of Clear Ripples), it was know as one of the famous ‘Three hills and Five gardens’, (these being Longevity Hill; Jade Spring Mountain and Fragrant Hill; The Garden of Clear Ripples, the Garden of Everlasting Spring, the Garden of Perfection and Brightness, the Garden of Tranquillity and Brightness, and the Garden of Tranquillity and Pleasure). [Source: CNTO]

What we think of as The Summer Palace today began as the Garden of Clear Ripples in 1750. Artisans reproduced the Garden Architecture styles of various palaces in China. It served as a summer resort for the Empress Dowager Cixi, who diverted 30 million taels of silver, said to be originally designated for the Chinese navy, into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace; In 1888, she changed its name to the Summer Palace. She spent most of her later years there, dealing with state affairs and entertaining.

The palace complex suffered two major attacks-during the Anglo-French allied invasion of 1860, and during the Boxer Rebellion, in an attack by the eight allied powers in 1900. The garden survived and was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. During the rampages of the Anglo-French allied force much of it was destroyed by fire.

After the the 1911 Revolution, it was opened to the public. Composed mainly of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, The Summer Palace occupies an area of 294 hectares, three quarters of which is water. Guided by nature, artists designed the gardens exquisitely so that visitors would see marvellous scenery and be amazed by the perfect examples of their refined craftwork using the finest of materials.

Summer Palace Buildings

According to UNESCO: The Summer Palace in Beijing integrates numerous traditional halls and pavilions into the Imperial Garden conceived by the Qing emperor Qianlong between 1750 and 1764 as the Garden of Clear Ripples. Using Kunming Lake, the former reservoir of the Yuan dynasty’s capital and Longevity Hill as the basic framework, the Summer Palace combined political and administrative, residential, spiritual, and recreational functions within a landscape of lakes and mountains, in accordance with the Chinese philosophy of balancing the works of man with nature. [Source: UNESCO]

“Destroyed during the Second Opium War of the 1850s, it was reconstructed by Emperor Guangxu for use by Empress Dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace. Although damaged again during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 it was restored and has been a public park since 1924. The central feature of the Administrative area, the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity is approached through the monumental East Palace Gate.

“The connecting Residential area comprises three building complexes: the Halls of Happiness in Longevity, Jade Ripples and Yiyun, all built up against the Hill of Longevity, with fine views over the lake. These are linked by roofed corridors which connect to the Great Stage to the east and the Long Corridor to the West. In front of the Hall of Happiness in Longevity a wooden quay gave access by water for the Imperial family to their quarters.”

Summer Palace Garden

The Summer Palace Garden is and archetypal Chinese garden, and is highly ranked as among classical garden. Originally called ‘Qingyi Garden’ (The Garden of Clear Ripples), it was know as one of the famous ‘Three hills and Five gardens’, (these being Longevity Hill; Jade Spring Mountain and Fragrant Hill; The Garden of Clear Ripples, the Garden of Everlasting Spring, the Garden of Perfection and Brightness, the Garden of Tranquillity and Brightness, and the Garden of Tranquillity and Pleasure).

According to UNESCO: The garden provides areas for enjoying views and spiritual contemplation and is embellished with garden buildings including the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, the Tower of the Revolving Archive, Wu Fang Pavilion, the Baoyun Bronze Pavilion, and the Hall that Dispels the Clouds. Kunming Lake contains three large islands, corresponding to the traditional Chinese symbolic mountain garden element, the southern of which is linked to the East Dike by the Seventeen Arch Bridge.

As the culmination of several hundred years of Imperial garden design, the Summer Palace has had a major influence on subsequent oriental garden art and culture. An essential feature is the West Dike with six bridges in different styles along its length. Other important features include temples and monasteries in Han and Tibetan style located on the north side of the Hill of Longevity and the Garden of Harmonious Pleasure to the north-east.

“The Summer Palace in Beijing is an outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole.” It “epitomizes the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design, which played a key role in the development of this cultural form throughout the east.The Imperial Chinese Garden, illustrated by the Summer Palace, is a potent symbol of one of the major world civilizations.

Visiting the Summer Palace

The Summer Palace draws up to 107,000 visitors a day. Visitors enter through the East Gate. Along the pathway inside are statues of kylin, creatures with the head of dragon, tail of a lion, hooves of an ox, tail of a lion, and antlers of a deer said to be able to reveal disloyal subjects. Renshoudian (Hall of Benevolence and Longevity) is a large multi-eaved hall where the empress gave audience. It retains much of its original furnishings, including the red sandalwood throne, carved with nine dragons.

Deheyeun (Palace of Virtue and Harmony) features a three-story theater, which hosted dramas in which Cixi sometimes played Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. In Yulangtang (Jade Waves Palace), the Emperor Guangxi was kept prisoner for 10 years. Leshoutnag (Hall of Joy and Longevity) and the buildings around it served as Cixi’s living quarters, Here you can see Cixi’s hardwood throne and the banquet table from which she enjoyed here 18 course meals. The chandeliers were China’s first electric lights. They were installed in 1903 and powered by their own generator.

Other interesting sights include Longevity Hill, the home of the Pavilion of Buddha's Fragrance; the Bronze Pavilion, caste from 207 tons of metal; Kunming Lake, where visitors can tour around in dragon-shaped cruise boats in the summer and skate in the winter. Near the Seventeen Arch Bridge is a bronze ox, a northern-style royal garden and a southern-style garden called the "Garden of Harmonious Interest." Next the lake old men dip three-foot-long brushes into the water and write large calligraphy characters of famous poems in the sidewalk stones that last for just a moment before they evaporate. The open water swim events for the 2008 Olympics were held here. Some complain the Summer Palace looks like a Disneyland recreation.

It is highly recommend that you take the subway to the Summer Palace. Taxis are much more expensive and they often get bogged down in traffic, which can be around the clock. The Summer Palace is served by two metro station: Xiyuan and Beigongmen Station, both on Line 4. They are the third and second last stations on line 4 are about one hour from Tiananmen Square, including the time required to change trains. Both of the stations are about a 10 minute walk to the East Gate (main gate). The easiest thing to do is get off at the Xiyuan Station, leave the station using the C2 Exit then walk to the East Gate. It is recommended that you leave the Summer Palace from the North Gate, from where you can easily walk to Beigongmen Station, where you can catch a subway back to central Beijing

Empress Dowager Cixi


Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) was a Chinese empress dowager and regent who effectively controlled the Chinese government in the late Qing dynasty for 47 years, from 1861 until her death in 1908. A member of the Manchu Yehe Nara clan, she was selected as a concubine of the Xianfeng Emperor in her adolescence and gave birth to a son, Zaichun, in 1856. After the Xianfeng Emperor's death in 1861, the young boy became the Tongzhi Emperor, and she became the Empress Dowager. Cixi secured power by ousting a group of regents appointed by the late emperor and assumed regency, which she shared with Empress Dowager Ci'an. Cixi then consolidated control over the dynasty when she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor at the death of the Tongzhi Emperor in 1875, contrary to the traditional rules of succession of the Qing dynasty that had ruled China since 1644. [Source: Wikipedia]

In 1861, when a powerful leader could have turned the country around, the Chinese throne was taken over by a succession of child emperors who were controlled by a former concubine known as the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi is the title of honor for the Empress Dowager in late Qing dynasty. Her real name was Yulan, but people (except her husband and parents) were forbidden to call her Yulan, according to the complex rules of feudal system.

Less than five feet tall and known to ordinary Chinese as "that evil old woman," Cixi rose from the position of a third-level concubine to become the ostensible ruler of China for nearly half a century by bearing the Emperor of China his only son. A staunch anti-reformist, she was exploited by Western powers, who she claimed to despise, and brought untold hardship and despair to ordinary Chinese and oversaw the collapse of Qing (Manchu) dynasty.

Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian, “One of Emperor Xianfeng's 3,000 concubines, Cixi rose through the ranks by producing an heir, Tongzhi, and when Xianfeng died in 1861 she ousted other contenders and installed herself as sole regent for her son, ruling China for 47 years....The times that Cixi dominated were critical to the shaping of modern China, a country that resembles the Qing autocracy in many ways, though without the empire's relatively free press and anticipated suffrage. The top echelons of Chinese politics remain as male-dominated and vicious as ever, and Cixi remains as gripping a subject. [Source: Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, October 25, 2013 ***]

Books: Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang; China Under the Empress Dowager by E. Backhouse and J.O. Bland; The Dragon Empress by Marina Warner; Dragon Lady by Sterling Seagrave;

Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan)

Old Summer Palace (near the Summer Palace Complex) is known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan ("Garden of Perfect Brightness"). It was built by the Qing emperors in the 17th and 18th centuries. "There has never been an imperial pleasure ground that can surpass it," the Emperor Qianlong wrote in 1742. The palace was continuously expanded under five emperors' supervision in Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), and its expansion continued for over 150 years.

In October 1860, after the Second Opium War officially ended, French and British troops went on the rampage and looted and burned down the Emperor's spectacular Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan ("Garden of Perfect Brightness"), near Beijing. Every schoolchild in China knows the story as a symbol of the humiliation exacted on China by the colonial powers. British-French forces razed the palace in retaliation for the execution of allied prisoners. After watching the looting of the Summer Palace, Captain Charles Gordon of the British army wrote, "You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the palaces we burnt." Covering 80 square miles and known as Chinese Versailles, the original estate was an eunuch-run fantasyland with imperial halls, and the largest royal gardens in the world. Just the gardens covered 3.5 square kilometers and embraced over 200 pavilions, artificial lakes, more than a thousand bridges, miniature replicas of China's most famous landscapes, lovely traditional buildings and even European-style rococo palaces designed by European Jesuits in the 18th century. It also contained vast collections of exquisite art. Much of it later stolen by French and British troops. There is currently a debate on whether to spend $250 million and recreate the former estate as a symbol of China's glorious past or leave the ruins as they are, partly to symbolize the wrongs delivered to China by foreign colonial powers. According to Washington Post, Chinese who wander through the ruins often shake their heads and grumble phrases like "It was so beautiful, and they destroyed it" and "What a terrible thing they did."

Over the years the 80 square mile parcel of land has been taken over by squatters, garbage dumps and fancy villa developments. The section that has been turned into a park also includes a depressing zoo, tacky carnival games and an island occupied by the "Primitive People's Totem Park," and a dinosaur theme park with rideble stegosauruses and meat-eating dinosaurs with fake blood dripping off their teeth.

In any case, Yuanmingyuan Park is beautiful park filled with lakes and a wide variety of plant life. To show the original appearance of the park to the visitors, part of its ancient architecture has been restored; Admission: 10 yuan (US$1.58) per person;

Summer Palace Conservation and Troubles

According to UNESCO: The Beijing Summer Palace Management Office has been responsible for heritage management of the Summer Palace since it was established in 1949. Now among it’s over 1500 staff, 70 percent are professionals. Under it there are 30 sections responsible for cultural heritage conservation, gardening, security, construction, and protection. Regulations and emergency plans have been stipulated. At present, the protection of the Summer Palace is operating well. Under the overall protective framework made by the central and local governments, the protection and management of the Summer Palace will be carried out in accordance with strict and periodic conservation plans and programs. The scientific management and protection is carried out based on the information gained from increasingly sophisticated monitoring.

The Summer Palace, however , was in the news in 2013 after a portion of a marble pillar was stolen. Ilaria Maria Sala wrote in Art News: “While officials at the Summer Palace were keen to keep the disappearance under wraps, last February a user of a Chinese microblogging platform posted a series of photos showing a gaping hole in one of the antique marble balustrades. [Source: Ilaria Maria Sala, Art News, July 31, 2013]

“Soon after, the commercial media reported the story, and the whole scandal came out into the open. The missing artifact—a 20-inch-tall hunk of white marble weighing about 110 pounds—was part of 60 similar pillars delicately carved with dragon and cloud motifs, most likely produced in the 18th century, in the glory days of the Qing dynasty. A press release from the Summer Palace later acknowledged the disappearance, adding that the missing pillar would be “replaced with the same material soon” and that it was “probably carved in the late Qing dynasty,” in the 19th century, and not all that precious—once again irking conservationists and the public alike.”

Near the Summer Palace

Western HillsWestern Hills (near the Summer Palace) is an area where one can escape the crowded urbanness of Beijing. It is green and cooler there. There are number of parks including Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan) and Badachu. Mao lived here for a while here and other leaders have retreated here.

Fragrant Hills Park Fragrant Hills Park (in the Western Hills) has some nice temples and pagodas and wonderful views of the countryside north of Beijing. It is quite lovely in the autumn when the leaves of the trees turn red. The Xiangshan Hotel was designed by the famous architect I.M. Pei.

Botanical Gardens Botanical Gardens (in the Western Hills) boasts over 2,000 varieties of tree, shrub and flowers. It has plants from all China, including rain forest plant from Yunnan. The gardens are particularly beautiful in the spring when flowers are in bloom.

Image Sources: Province maps from the Nolls China Web site. Photographs of places from 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4); 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6); 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site.

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), UNESCO, Rough Guide for Beijing, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in May 2020

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