The Best-preserved Imperial Garden
The Summer Palace, an imperial garden, nestles about 15 kilometres from the Forbidden City in the northwest suburb of Beijing. This garden, formerly named Qingyi Yuan (“the Garden of Clear Ripples”), is home to the famous Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake along with many pavilions, terraces and towers, combining styles of landscaping and garden design from southern and northern China.
A Garden for Filial Piety
In the 11th lunar month of 1749, thousands of labourers gathered southwest of Wengshan Hill (today's Longevity Hill) to dredge and expand the half-moon-shaped Xihu Lake (today's Kunming Lake) pursuant to the edict issued by Emperor Qianlong. Consequently, the lake was expanded, doubling its original area.
Emperor Qianlong ordered people to build stone flumes to divert water from the Western Hills and Yuquan Hill into Xihu Lake. In order to prevent flooding of the Xihu Lake, a dyke (named West Dyke) was built with three water gates, which were usually closed to conserve the lake's water. After renovating the lake, the person in charge of the project was ordered by Emperor Qianlong to construct the Temple of Immense Gratitude and Longevity on the site of the ruined Temple of Serenity.
In the sixth lunar month of 1751, the emperor formally bestowed the name Garden of Clear Ripples on the architectural ensemble in the vicinity of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. A large landscape complex soon emerged in the northwest suburb of Beijing.
On the 19th day of the 11th lunar month of 1751, Emperor Qianlong's mother, Empress Dowager Chongqing, celebrated her 60th birthday. Emperor Qianlong held a banquet to mark her birthday. Later, he led his mother to visit the Garden of Clear Ripples for the first time.
At Longevity Hill, Qianlong arranged a grand celebration party for his mother, and people then understood why the emperor changed the name of Wengshan Hill to Longevity Hill and built the Temple of Immense Gratitude and Longevity.
Most emperors of the Qing Dynasty were fascinated by southern China's scenery. Emperor Qianlong made efforts to expand and improve the Garden of Clear Ripples to make it more beautiful than others of its kind in southern China.
The Summer Palace consists of three areas—area of the temporary palace centring on the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity; residential area composed of Hall of Jade Ripples, Hall of Happiness in Longevity and Garden of Virtue and Harmony; a vast area along the Long Corridor, at the back of Longevity Hill and in the west serving emperors and empresses as a leisure area.
The Summer Palace was influenced by imperial and political factors. Its wall is not as square as that of the Forbidden City, but the garden also features a central axis with an entrance at the archway outside the East Palace Gate.
Civilian officials and military officers were required to get down from their horses near a stele on the right side of the imperial way starting from the archway. Behind the archway, there are offices of departments of Military Information, Defence Preparations and Foreign Affairs on both sides along the imperial way. Those structures strictly follow an imperial architecture layout.
An axis starts from the northern bank of Kunming Lake and ends at the hilltop of the Longevity Hill. It plays a role in the Summer Palace, stringing the Glowing Clouds and Holy Land Archway, the Gate that Dispels the Clouds, the Golden Water Bridge, the Second Palace Gate, the Hall that Dispels the Clouds, the Hall of Moral Glory, the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha, the Realm of Popular Fragrance and the Sea of Wisdom Temple.
Cixi enjoyed her later life here and also turned it into a dreamland full of scenery and leisure facilities. As Cixi loved to watch traditional operas, the Summer Garden had many theatre stages. As far back as 1750, a two-storey theatre stage was built in the western part of the southern slope of Longevity Hill, named the Hall for Listening to Orioles.
During the reign of Emperor Guangxu (reign: 1875–1908), the rebuilt theatre stage was in the south and five rooms were built opposite to it for watching operas. It was where Cixi frequently came to watch operas for leisure. Cixi ordered to build the Garden of Virtue and Harmony at the original site of the Yichun Hall.
According to historical records, from the 21st year to the 34th year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu, the Great Theatre Stage of the Garden of Virtue and Harmony saw over 200 performances of traditional operas. Cixi once watched operas here on more than 260 occasions.
To keep Cixi entertained, many precious objects and novelties were brought to the Summer Palace. Many of the latest scientific progresses in the late 19th century and early 20th century occurred in the garden early on. The Summer Palace exemplifies ancient imperial Chinese gardens, adopting architectural and landscaping styles of both northern and southern China.
Tower of Buddhist Incense of the Summer Palace
Dehelou Opera Tower in the Summer Palace