The Summer Palace dates back 800 years ago. It is the best preserved imperial garden in the world and the largest of its kind that still in existence in China today. The beautiful imperial garden is set off by a multitude of highly decorated buildings, halls, pavilions, bridges, towers, pagodas, isles, and courtyards. Housed in these buildings are an immense collection of treasures and cultural artifacts. The harmonious layout of the garden is a Chinese architectural masterpiece that combines both the gorgeous landscape and the treasure of the traditional Chinese gardening art. It was endorsed by the UNESCO in 1998 as a world cultural heritage site.
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About the Summer Palace and the Empress Dowager Cixi...
When the Old Summer Palace outside Beijing was destroyed (it burned for three days and three nights) the present Summer Palace was constructed in the same vicinity. This one was built essentially as a summer retirement home for the controversial Empress Dowager Cixi.
Every summer in Beijing, Cixi would escape the stifling confines of the Forbidden City and travel by boat to the outskirts of Beijing. The boat entered beautiful man-made Lake Kunming before the empress and her considerable entourage disembarked to quarters in the Summer Palace in the lee of Longevity Hill, built from the soil of the excavated lake.
The Panoramic View
It is not surprising that in 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List, declaring it "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."
A tempestuous history followed...in fact, the palace suffered two major attacks - during the Anglo-French allied invasion of 1860 (with the Old Summer Palace nearby also ransacked at the same time), 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. In 1888, the Empress diverted government funds, enlarged the palace and built the Marble Boat, now a symbol of the Summer Palace.
Born in 1835 in Anhui Province, Empress Cixi was a powerful and charismatic figure who became the de facto ruler of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in China for 47 years from 1861 to her death in 1908. She was one of 60 girls chosen to be concubines. She gave birth to a son who became an ineffectual emperor on his father's death. Two of the emperor's wives became empresses, and Cixi (an "honorific name" given to her in 1861 after her son ascended the throne) was by far the most ambitious and dominant of the two.
Cixi amassed enormous wealth and, it was documented, was very shrewd. She had great presence, charm, and graceful movements resulting in "an unusually attractive personality". She loved dogs and flowers, and boating, as well as Chinese opera and her Chinese water pipes...and European cigarettes. There are many fascinating photographs of Cixi and her court in her quarters at the Summer Palace. Empress Dowager Cixi died on 15 November 1908, a day after the death of the Guangxu Emperor (possibly by poison?), the son of fellow Empress Cian. She witnessed the coronation of the last emperor, Pu Yi, who was ousted in 1912. (History doesn't get more interesting!)
Cixi was buried 100km east of Beijing, but in 1928, her tomb was broken into by a warlord, using dynamite. The attackers opened the Empress's coffin, threw her corpse (said to have been found intact) on the floor, and stole all the jewels in the coffin, as well as the massive pearl that had been placed in her mouth to protect her corpse from decomposing (in accordance with Chinese tradition). After 1949, her grave complex was restored by the Chinese government...and it remains one the most impressive imperial tombs in China.
The Long Corridor - a covered walkway along Lake Kunming at the Summer Palace, runs for almost 800 metres to the famous marble boat. When the royal family walked to the boat to take tea, they had a wonderfully decorated walkway (a completely different hand painted image along every beam) to admire as they strolled along.
Just about 15 kilometres from central Beijing, overlooking a gorgeous lake called Kunming.
Besides being a magnificent Chinese garden, the Summer Palace has been constantly buffeted by history since its inception in 1860. It replaced the Old Summer Palace next door that was completely destroyed by British and French troops in 1860 (which remains a site of ruins to this day.)
Oh, there's nothing that's new here...but one very interesting woman lived here for 30 years until her death in 1908. She was the Empress Dowager Cixi (tzee-shee), a mere concubine who manipulated her way to the top position in the land.