Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)
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The Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) is a complex of palaces, lakes and gardens that is located in the Haidian district of Beijing. About 15 km to the northwest of the city center, it is not far from the ruins of the Old Summer Palace. Both palaces were created as private pleasure gardens for the emperors of the Qing dynasty and their family. Construction of the Summer Palace lasted from 1750 to 1764 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. However, it was then known as the Qingyi Garden (Garden of Clear Ripples).
Whereas the Old Summer Palace was completely destroyed by Anglo-French troops in 1860 and the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900, most of the parts that were damaged or destroyed in the Summer Palace during these tumultuous times were later restored. After completion of its first reconstruction in 1888, the Summer Palace was renamed "Yiheyuan" and most Chinese people refer to it by that name today. Visitors can see the three Chinese Hanzi characters 頤和園 that spell out that name on the sign above the Eastern Palace Gate. They were written by the Guangxu Emperor himself.
A veritable masterpiece of Chinese garden design, the Summer Palace is a must-see attraction for anyone that is interested in Chinese history. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998, about 2 million visitors per year make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Beijing. About 3,000 historic structures stand on the grounds of the Summer Palace that occupies a total area of 300.59 hectares. The landscape of this imperial resort is dominated by Longevity Hill (Wanshou Shan) and the Kunming Lake. There are four main areas to visit: the Court Area, Kunming Lake Area and the front and rear area of Longevity Hill.
The Court Area is located between the East Palace Gate and the northeast coast of Kunming Lake. This part of the Summer Palace served various functions at once. State affairs were handled in some of the halls whereas others served as living quarters or entertainment areas. When entering through the East Palace Gate, visitors will first see the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity (Renshoudian). When in attendance, the Qing emperors managed the affairs of state from there. To the north is the Garden of Virtue and Harmony (Dehe Garden). It served as an entertainment area where the Empress Dowager Cixi watched Peking opera performances on the stage of the Grand Theater. The Hall of Jade Ripples (Yulantang), Hall of Joyful Longevity (Leshoutang) and Yiyun House once were the respective residences of the Guangxu Emperor, the Empress Dowager Cixi and the Empress Longyu (the wife of the Guangxu Emperor).
The Kunming Lake Area is the largest of the different areas of the Summer Palace and the attractions all around it are far too numerous to count. One of the most famous of them is the Marble Boat where Empress Dowager Cixi used to enjoy the beautiful lake scenery while having tea. It stands in the northwest corner of the lake and is the only western-style structure in the Summer Palace. For Chinese people, it has also become symbolic of the corruption during the late Qing dynasty. That is because Cixi financed its rebuilding in 1893 (its earlier version with a wooden pavilion was burnt down by Anglo-French troops in 1860) with funds that were intended to be used to upgrade the Qing navy fleet.
The three small islands that dot the man-made Kunming Lake are Nanhu Island (South Lake Island), Zaojiantang Island and Zhijingge Island. Nanhu Island is the largest of them where you will find several halls, pavilions and temples. It can be reached by crossing the famous Seventeen-Arch Bridge (Shiqikong Qiao) from where you will have the best view of Longevity Hill to the north. After visiting the island, you could walk towards Longevity Hill along the eastern side of Kunming Lake. Definitely worth a stop along that way is Wenchang Gallery which is located right next to Wenchang Tower. Its halls showcase thousands of cultural artifacts from some 3,600 years of Chinese history since the Shang dynasty. Included among the antiques that are on display are bronze objects, fine jewelry, Chinese porcelain, pieces of furniture, delicate lacquerware, carved ivory and many other priceless treasures.
Many buildings in the front area of Longevity Hill served a Buddhist function. Among them, the Tower of Buddhist Incense (Foxiangge) is also the largest building on the grounds of the Summer Palace. There is also a peculiar pavilion in this area that is made entirely out of bronze, the Baoyun Pavilion (Baoyunge). Unfortunately, this truly unique pavilion that is also called the "Golden Pavilion" is overlooked by most visitors, perhaps due to its placement in a relatively secluded area of palace. One of the halls in this area, the festively furnished Hall of Dispelling Clouds (Paiyundian) with its "Nine-Dragon Throne", was used for the birthday celebrations of Empress Dowager Cixi every year in autumn. Cixi also enjoyed walking along the Long Gallery (Changlang) every day after breakfast. This 728-meter-long gallery that displays 14,000 colored paintings on its wooden beams is the longest corridor in Chinese classic gardens. It is now a favorite rest area for tired visitors as it provides ample space to sit down.
The rear area of Longevity Hill is the least crowded part of the Summer Palace but perhaps the most diverse regarding the variety of sights. The main structures here are a Tibetan-style Buddhist temple, a shopping street, a secluded study area for the emperor and a wonderful garden. From the temple complex that bears the unusual name "Four Great Regions" it is not far to the Suzhou Market Street (Suzhoujie). This area was built to resemble the market area along the river banks in the southern city of Suzhou in style. It was once used as an entertainment area where the emperor could "play" to go shopping with his concubines just like ordinary people. The roles of the shopkeepers, street peddlers and other customers were enacted by palace eunuchs and maids then. More than 60 stores that sell all kinds of things now occupy the old buildings in this area of the Summer Palace. The Garden of Harmonious Interests (Xiequyuan) is located on the eastern side of Longevity Hill. It was created in the style of the classical gardens of Southern China and is attractive to visitors in all of the four seasons. A bit to the west from there along the Houxi River (the back stream of Kunming Lake) lies the Hall of Serenity (Danning Hall). This is perhaps the most secluded and quiet spot in the Summer Palace which served its purpose as a study area for the emperor just fine.