The Summer Palace (Chinese Pinyin: Yí Hé Yuán), northwest of Beijing, is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world, and the largest of its kind still in existence in China. It is only a short drive (15 km) from central Beijing but seems like another world.
The Summer Palace was initially built in 1750 by Emperor Qianglong. The architectural style of Summer Palace is to make others believe it is inartificial. It covers an area of 70 thousand square meters and holds over 3000 houses. In 1860 and 1900 it was destroyed by invaders and in 1912 it was rebuilt by the Government of Qing Dynasty. In 1924, it began to be open to tourists.
The Summer Palace is one of the loveliest spots in Beijing. Not all the buildings are open to the public, but many are, and the others continue to enhance the park with their design and decoration, nestled into the landscape.
The arched bridges, pretty promenades, decorated corridors, and ‘breezeways’ (a hallway that allows the passage of a breeze between structures) lead visitors through ever-changing views and scenery.
Most people find they need to spend at least half a day here, there’s so much to see and enjoy in the gardens, buildings, and waterways.
You can take a 10 minute boat-ride to see an island temple, sit and watch a traditional Chinese performance in the restored theatre (one of the three great traditional theatres in China), or explore the recreated traditional shops by the river. The story goes, that former Emperors, or their concubines, used to enjoy 'pretend-shopping', as normally everything was bought for them.
Just wandering round enjoying the different buildings and courtyards, or just taking in the views from one of the many vantage points is a pleasure.
A visit involves plenty of walking, so wear comfortable shoes and protection from the weather (sun or rain) and be prepared to be enchanted. There are many pleasant spots along the way to pause and enjoy this much-loved summer retreat, as well as places to enjoy cool drinks and snacks.
The Chinese call it Yihe Yuan (Garden of Restful Peace), and the landscaped gardens, temples, and pavilions were designed to achieve harmony with nature, to soothe, and to please the eye.
During the hot Beijing summers, the Imperial Family preferred the beautiful gardens and airy pavilions of the Summer Palace to the walled-in Forbidden City. Infamous Dowager Empress Cixi took up permanent residence here for a time, giving rise to some wonderful tales of extravagance and excess.
Many of the buildings have been meticulously restored, and maintenance and restoration activities are ongoing.
The park falls naturally into several sections, each with its own distinct character, some meant for administration, some living, and others relaxation.
In the Court area, near the East Palace Gate, are the palace buildings where Dowager Empress Cixi and Emperor Guangxu used to stay and conduct government business. It includes a number of Halls, courtyards and displays.
From here the paths beside the lake (which takes up about 75% of the park) leads you under shady trees or along the roofed breezeway known as ‘the Long Corridor’, with its magnificently painted ceilings. Bridges, boats, willows, lotus flowers and attractive landscaping make this a pleasant place to soak up the atmosphere and take in the distant view.
Longevity Hill rises beside the lake, dotted with superb halls and temples and wonderfully decorated gates. The energetic can climb the hill to the Buddhist Temple overlooking the entire area.
The waterside path continues across bridges, past boathouses and the amazing Marble Boat, to an area of tranquil gardens, mounds and winding paths. Here the ‘Suzhou Market Street’ also recreates traditional riverside shops, many of which can only be reached by boat.
The Garden of Virtue and Harmony is an entertainment complex, built as a theater for the Empress Dowager. Its construction began in the 17th year of Emperor Guangxu's reign (1891) and lasted for five years.
The three-story theater stage is the biggest and best-preserved wooden stage in China, of delicate design and magnificent structure, and therefore of much scientific and artistic value.
Famous Beijing Opera actors of the Qing Dynasty would come here to perform for the Empress Dowager and the stage was regarded as the "Cradle of Beijing Opera".
A large number of precious articles used by emperors and empresses, as well as some of the gifts presented to the Qing court by foreign states, are on display here.
One in the first exhibition room deserves special attention: a vintage Benz. This is the first car imported into China and given as a gift to the Empress Dowager Ci'xi.
The Summer Palace was listed on the World Heritage List by the UNESCO in 1998.
UNESCO has this to say of 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 fills the UNESCO criteria in several ways as an expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in harmony; epitomizing the philosophy and practice of Chinese garden design, which played a key role in the development of this cultural form throughout the East; and as a potent symbol of one of the world’s major civilizations.
One Day Beijing Summer Palace Tour from $116 p/p (based on travel party of 2-3 persons)
Bus NO. 209, 330, 331, 332, 346, 394, 712, 718, 726, 732, 696, 683, 801, 808, 817, 826, off at east gate of Summer Palace
Bus No. 303, 330, 331, 346, 375, 384, 393, 634, 716, 718, 696, 683, 801, 808, 817, 834, Special 5, off at north gate of Summer Palace
Bus NO. 374, 437, 704, 992, 481, 952 off at new gate of Summer Palace