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HOURS: Daily Apr. 1-Oct. 31 7 a.m.-5 p.m.,
Nov. 1-Mar. 31 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
COST: ¥30 (Apr. 1-Oct. 31), ¥20 (Nov. 1-Mar. 31);
half price for students
METRO: Beigongmen (Line 4)
Beijing’s temperature rises to scorching during the summer months, so the emperors learned early on that getting out of the city was the best way to avoid the worst of it. The Summer Palace became their refuge from the heat and dust.
Located 15 kilometers (9 mi.) to the northwest of the Forbidden City, the palace complex construction began in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234) and reached its current size in 1705 during the reign of Qing emperor Qianlong. It was particularly favored by the last Empress, Dowager Cixi, who spent time there with her nephew, Emperor Guangxu.
Three quarters of the complex’s 249 hectares (615 acres) are water, including the artificially-made Kunming Lake. Earth from the digging of the lake was used to build Longevity Hill and Nanhu Island, major landmarks in the palace.
A UNESCO World Heritage sight, the palace is split into four main parts: the court, front hill, front lake, and rear area. Many buildings bore the brunt of the Boxer Rebellion in 1860, but plenty remain. Visitors enter the court section through the East Palace Gate, emblazoned with the Summer Palace’s Chinese name (Yiheyuan) in characters, which means “maintaining energy.”
In imperial times, the three main arches of the gate were reserved for the emperor, while courtiers, officials, and members of the royal family used smaller entrances at each side.
The first building is the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, dating from 1750. The original was burned during the Boxer Rebellion and rebuilt in 1888. It was the site of imperial administrative duties, and still contains many of the original furnishings. The courtyard contains a large Qilin statue. This mythical chimera was said to guard against fire and bring prosperity, and was brought to the Summer Palace from the ruined Yuanmingyuan.
The Garden of Virtue and Harmony was where Empress Cixi watched Peking opera performances. Sitting in the garden’s Hall of Nurtured Joy, she observed the stage in the Grand Theater. The emperor conducted state business, slept, and relaxed in the Hall of Jade Ripples—a complex that includes a main chamber and two smaller rooms on either side.
Nearby Yiyun House was the dwelling of Empress Longyu, the wife of Emperor Guangxu who was cast aside in favor of the concubine Zhen. Most of the royal family lived in the Hall of Joyful Longevity when they resided at the Summer Palace. It was built by the Qianlong Emperor as a gift for his mother’s 60th birthday, and includes a main hall dominated by a sandalwood throne.
The front hill section of the Summer Palace begins with the stunning Long Gallery—the longest of its kind in China. The 728-meter (0.4 mi.) stretch of elaborately decorated pillars and roofs was built by Qianlong in 1755, and connects Longevity Hill with Kunming Lake. The Hall of Dispelling Clouds on Longevity Hill was the site of festivals and celebrations, including the birthday of Empress Cixi. Look out for the beautiful red gate that cuts the Long Gallery into an eastern and western section.
The highest point on Longevity Hill is the Tower of Buddhist Incense, where Cixi made offerings on auspicious days. Standing 41 meters (134 ft.) tall on a 21-meter-high (69 ft.) base, it can be seen from most parts of the palace complex, and is a great vantage point. Climb up for some incredible views of the surrounding area.
Be sure not to miss the Baoyun Pavilion to the west. Made entirely of bronze, it stands on a marble base, and echoes with the sound of bronze bells. The Hall of the Sea of Wisdom sits atop Longevity Hill, and survived the fires of the Boxer Rebellion thanks to its glazed tiles. The hall contains statues of Buddha and the mercy goddess Guanyin.
Vast Kunming Lake dominates the Summer Palace complex, and was extended by Emperor Qianlong. Nanhu Island was created from the resulting silt, and is worth visiting for the view from Hanxu Hall, where Empress Cixi liked to spend time. The west bank of Kunming Lake has been landscaped to resemble Hangzhou’s much-lauded West Lake, and six bridges span the entrance.
The most striking bridge in the Summer Palace is the 17-arch marble structure that connects the eastern bank of the lake with Nanhu Island. Before you cross the bridge, look out for the giant bronze ox statue that is believed to ward off flooding. Another interesting folly is the marble boat that sits on the lake below Longevity Hill. The original was burned down, and the boat seen today was built by Cixi, using money she embezzled from the navy.
The rear hill area contains the Garden of Harmonious Interests, modeled after the classical gardens of the Yangtze Delta. Its main features number eight in total: a path, a pavilion, a tower, a room, a house, a hall, a bridge, and a hole. This part of the Summer Palace also contains Suzhou Market Street, originally built to give the royal family a taste of common life. Eunuchs, concubines, and courtesans manned the shops and stalls, allowing the emperor and empress to act as normal townsfolk. Today the shops sell souvenirs and curios.
The Summer Palace has countless beautiful scenic spots, pavilions, temples, and gardens, and requires at least half a day to enjoy properly. Go first thing in the morning so that you may have all day to explore.
© Susie Gordon from Moon Beijing & Shanghai, 2nd Edition