History of The Summer Palace, Beijing

According to indexdotcom.com, The Summer Palace, an iconic masterpiece of Chinese landscape architecture, is situated in the western suburbs of Beijing, China. Renowned for its breathtaking scenery, historical significance, and architectural grandeur, the Summer Palace has played a central role in China’s imperial history. In this exploration, we will delve into the rich history of the Summer Palace, tracing its origins, the various dynasties that contributed to its development, and its transformation into the cultural treasure it is today.

1. Origins and Early Developments:

Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368): The story of the Summer Palace begins during the Yuan Dynasty, under the reign of Emperor Kublai Khan. The site initially served as an imperial garden known as the “Garden of Clear Ripples” (Qingyi Yuan). It featured a large lake, gardens, and simple structures, serving as a retreat for the emperor.

Ming Dynasty (1368–1644): During the Ming Dynasty, the area underwent further development. The renowned imperial architect and painter, Giuseppe Castiglione, designed the garden with traditional Chinese landscaping principles. It was expanded and renamed the “Garden of Clear Ripples” (Qingyi Yuan), reflecting the Ming emperors’ appreciation for its natural beauty.

2. Qing Dynasty (1644–1912):

Early Qing Emperors: The real transformation of the Summer Palace occurred during the Qing Dynasty. In the mid-18th century, Emperor Qianlong, known for his love of art and grand projects, took a keen interest in the Summer Palace. He commissioned the expansion of the gardens and the construction of numerous palaces, pavilions, and temples.

Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake: One of the major projects initiated by Emperor Qianlong was the creation of Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) and Kunming Lake (Kunming Hu). The excavation of Kunming Lake, which covers about three-quarters of the Summer Palace’s total area, was a colossal undertaking that involved thousands of laborers.

Architectural Marvels: Emperor Qianlong and his successors contributed to the construction of architectural marvels, including the Tower of Buddhist Incense (Foxiang Ge), Seventeen-Arch Bridge, Marble Boat (Shifang), and numerous halls and pavilions. These structures reflected a harmonious integration of Chinese and Western architectural styles.

Occupation and Destruction: The Summer Palace suffered significant damage during the Second Opium War in 1856-1860. British and French forces looted and burned many of its buildings, leaving parts of the palace in ruins. The events surrounding the destruction of the Summer Palace remain a controversial chapter in China’s history, symbolizing the country’s vulnerability during a period of foreign aggression.

Reconstruction by Empress Dowager Cixi: Empress Dowager Cixi, a powerful figure in the late Qing Dynasty, played a pivotal role in the restoration and expansion of the Summer Palace. She diverted funds intended for the modernization of the navy to rebuild the palace. Empress Dowager Cixi also commissioned the reconstruction of the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Marble Boat.

3. Transformation into a Summer Resort:

End of Imperial Rule: With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 and the end of imperial rule, the Summer Palace faced an uncertain future. The last emperor, Puyi, was expelled from the Forbidden City, marking the end of China’s imperial era.

Public Park: After the establishment of the Republic of China, the Summer Palace was briefly opened to the public. However, during the early 20th century, the site faced challenges such as neglect and looting.

Japanese Occupation: During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Summer Palace suffered further damage as Japanese forces occupied Beijing. The site was ransacked, and numerous artifacts were either destroyed or taken away.

4. Post-1949 and Cultural Restoration:

Communist Era: Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Summer Palace underwent extensive renovations and restoration efforts. The government recognized its historical and cultural significance, and the palace was designated as a national key cultural relic.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: In 1998, the Summer Palace was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, acknowledging its outstanding cultural and historical value. The UNESCO designation highlights the significance of the palace as a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design.

5. Architectural and Natural Features:

Longevity Hill: Longevity Hill, at the northern end of the Summer Palace, rises majestically above Kunming Lake. Its intricate architectural features include the Tower of Buddhist Incense, a prominent three-story building adorned with intricate carvings and paintings.

Kunming Lake: Kunming Lake, covering over 700 acres, is a central feature of the Summer Palace. The lake is adorned with bridges, pavilions, and islands, creating a picturesque landscape that mirrors traditional Chinese painting.

Seventeen-Arch Bridge: The Seventeen-Arch Bridge, spanning across Kunming Lake, is a remarkable example of traditional Chinese bridge design. It connects the eastern shore to South Lake Island, providing panoramic views of the surrounding scenery.

Marble Boat: The Marble Boat, situated at the western end of Kunming Lake, is a unique structure made entirely of marble. Originally built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, it was reconstructed by Empress Dowager Cixi. The Marble Boat symbolizes stability and permanence.

Suzhou Street: Suzhou Street, a picturesque re-creation of a traditional Chinese street, features small shops and storefronts along a waterway. Commissioned by Emperor Qianlong, it reflects his fond memories of Suzhou, a city renowned for its classical gardens.