A marvel of Chinese garden design and one of Beijing’s must-see attractions, the Summer Palace was a royal retreat for emperors escaping the stifling summer slumps of the former imperial capital, and more recently a playground for the Empress Dowager Cixi. A (short) morning or afternoon exploring the waterways, pavilions, bridges and temples is sufficient, but well worth a full day exploring.
The domain was a royal garden for many years until it was greatly expanded and beautified by Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. He raised an army of workers to deepen and enlarge Lake Kunming (Kunming Hú), originally a reservoir dug by the Yuan dynasty, and overlooked the imperial naval excavators from the top of the hill. It is said
Anglo-French troops destroyed the palace at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Empress Dowager Cixi began overhauling in 1888 and allocated funds for a modern navy. A marble boat on the northern shore of the lake was her only nautical concession, if not quite submerged. Enraged by the Boxer Rebellion, foreign forces attempted to burn the Summer Palace again in 1900, necessitating further restoration work. By 1949 the palace fell into disrepair again and needed a major overhaul.
The glittering Kunming Lake occupies his three-quarters of the park, above which towers Changshou Mountain (Wanshou Mountain, Wanshou Mountain) with an eight-tiered Buddhist incense pagoda. This is the most elaborate and costly restoration project in Cixi’s large-scale redesign. Situated on a north-south axis, the pagoda towers behind the Cloud Exile Hall built by Emperor Qianlong for his mother’s 60th birthday. At the base of Longevity Hill, which hugs the northern shore of the lake, is the Long Corridor, a 2,300-foot (728 m) covered, decorative walkway. Thousands of works of art adorn each transom, pillar, and vaulted ceiling, depicting picturesque landscapes, popular myths, Buddhist scenes, and folklore from across China.
At the western end of the Long Corridor is Cixi’s Marble Her Boat, a place of entertainment (and a common garden design motif), and at the eastern end is her living quarters, the Hall of Fame, Siheyuan. reflects the traditional layout of The courtyards of Beijing always have dusty furniture from the Qing dynasty. Continue east to Cixi’s three-story grand theater where she watched her beloved Peking Opera.
At the nearby Hall of Mercy and Longevity, Empress Dowager Wu continued her official retirement by pulling government strings. Get a glimpse of the magnificent throne room inside. The outdoor rock garden is designed to mimic Suzhou’s famous lion forest. Also note the dragon and phoenix statues in the courtyard, symbols of the emperor and empress. Fenghuang is the star here, clearly showing that her female girlfriend Cixi is running the show.
If you have time, circle the lake along the West Causeway. You can exit the palace through the West Gate and take the West Point Line back into the city or along the East Coast. Based in Hangzhou’s famous Su Dam, the willow- and mulberry-lined dam begins northwest of Marble Boat. The Yutai Bridge, which dates back to the reign of Emperor Qianlong, has a beautiful moon hump and crosses the point where the Yu River joins the lake.
Behind Longevity Hill, Suzhou Street is built to mimic the waterways and architecture of Jiangsu’s famous canal city. Here, the emperor and his concubines pretended to be commoners and “shopped” for jewels in spare shops lining the seafront, with eunuchs taking the role of shopkeepers. Today, it’s ironically jam-packed with authentic souvenir shops.