Summer Palace 颐和园

Dowager Empress Cíxǐ’s favourite escape from Běijīng
Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond

The Summer Palace’s collection of halls, pavilions, and temples around the large Kūnmíng Hú (昆明湖, lake) and Wànshòu Shān (万寿山, Longevity Hill) was a favourite haunt of the Dowager Empress Cíxǐ, who preferred it to the Forbidden City. She named it Yíhé Yuán (roughly ‘Garden of Health and Harmony’) following its reconstruction in 1888. Earlier Qīng emperors had favoured Chéngdé for the summer, or ruled from the far more extensive Yuánmíng Yuán, but Cíxǐ conducted affairs of state in the name of the hapless Guāngxù emperor from here for most of the year.

It is possible to spend an entire day exploring all the various pathways and pavilions, but the densest group of buildings is around the main east gate, many of them relatively simple single-storey structures and considerably less grand than the halls of the Forbidden City. There are several impressive bronzes in their forecourts, but their ill-lit contents can often be seen only through smeared glass. An exception is the more recently opened Wénchāng Yuàn (文昌院) on the south side of the main entrance, which has several halls with better displays of assorted bronzes, ceramics, carved ivory, and garish objets d’art imported from overseas by the Qīng.

The Lèshòu Táng (乐寿堂, Hall of Happiness and Longevity) was Cíxǐ’s residence, first built in 1750 and rebuilt in 1887. You can peer through the doors from a distance to see dark, late-Qīng furniture, in theory left as Cíxǐ had it when the Summer Palace was shut up after her death.

Behind, the Yùlán Táng (玉澜堂, Hall of Jade Billows) was the imperial accommodation and, after the coup against the Guāngxù emperor, was his prison whenever the court moved to the Summer Palace. The Déhé Yuán (德和园, Garden of Virtue and Harmony) is a splendid three-storey theatre building echoing the Forbidden City’s Pavilion of Pleasant Sounds. Here Cíxǐ indulged her love of Běijīng opera in the summer, reportedly maintaining a troupe of 300 performers.

A lavish restoration of the gaudily decorated theatre was completed in 2013, together with reconstruction of neighbouring buildings and installation of a new exhibition of opera props and costumes. Other galleries are used for exhibiting a variety of articles in everyday use during the Qīng, elaborate gowns and shoes, and photographs of Cíxǐ wearing similar items. Even the fúwùyuán are dressed in mock-Qīng style, though they look fairly mournful about it. On the way to the stage you pass through a room with a superb old car, horsedrawn vehicles, and other bric-à-brac, and the western verandah has an exhibition of particularly vile glassware. (There’s a similar display at the mountain resort at Chéngdé.)

Preceding west you enter the aptly named Cháng Láng (长廊, Long Corridor) of 1750, rebuilt 1885, which zig-zags along the northern shore for 728m, its course occasionally broken up by pavilions. Being able to walk the entire length is rare, since every beam is painted with a landscape or other scene, said to number 8000 in all. As soon as touching up the artwork is completed, it needs to be started again and a another section blocked off. The passage will bring you to what is perhaps Cíxǐ’s most lasting monument. Having spent some of the naval funds on her repairs, perhaps what little conscience she had led her to open a token school for naval officers, and maybe a taste for irony led her to create the Qīngyàn Fǎng (清晏舫, Boat of Purity and Ease, more commonly known as the Marble Boat). The hull-shaped base had already been carved from an offshore rock, and Cíxǐ added the ornate two-storey marble superstructure. The neighbouring Tīnglí Guǎn (听鹂馆, Pavilion for Listening to Orioles) is fine, and the café is good for snacks during the day, but its lacklustre dining room is one of those open-too-long and overrated restaurants, now mainly visited by tour groups.
On your way to the boat you pass the Páiyún Diàn (排云殿, Cloud Dispelling Hall), at the base of Longevity Hill, which was artificially raised in height at the time of the Qiánlóng emperor’s improvements to the site. Here was the throne room, and while the regency was in place Cíxǐ sat behind a screen. But after she had effectively deposed the Guāngxù emperor she sat on the yellow silk-covered throne herself.

A steep climb brings you to the terrace in front of the fat, octagonal, four-storey, red-pillared, yellow- and green-tiled Fóxiāng Gé (佛香阁, Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha), its beams a riot of blue, gold, and green, and the whole topped with a giant yellow knob. The views from the terrace over the sweeping yellow roofs below recall in miniature those from Jǐng Shān Park over the Forbidden City. Across the lake the Seventeen-Arch Bridge looks particularly elegant, and distant pagodas still top hillside spurs. Inside the Fóxiāng Gé there are ceramic Buddhas in niches and a single large seated figure, in front of which the devout leave money and peaches.

Other buildings of interest at this level include the Bǎoyún Gé (宝云阁, more usually known as the Bronze Pavilion), similar to that at Wǔtái Shān, which copies those of wooden construction in minute detail but entirely in metal. Dating from 1750, it is one of the few parts of the palace to have survived the Anglo-French destruction, although there was an attempt by the Japanese to export it in 1945.

The magnificent brick, stone, and tile Zhòngxiāng Jiè (众香界, Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance), above, is also largely original, although the statuary inside isn’t, and the hundreds of green- and yellow-tiled Buddhas that stud its surface are in many cases headless, the Anglo-French forces having used them for target practice. There’s a view down on the north side to the north gate and the garish McDonald’s just outside it, as well as to Sūzhōu Jiē (苏州街), a reconstructed series of shops around the edge of the slender Back Lake. Here the illusion of being normal people would be created for members of the Imperial family, the eunuchs performing as shopkeepers and pickpockets (and being punished if caught). Visitors are now supposed to be able to sample the life of the emperors by paying to visit the street, and paying again for overpriced souvenirs from men and women in period costume.

The North Gate (北门, Běi Mén, the one nearest to the metro) provides a quieter entrance and exit and is only one stop further on most bus routes. You can also catch buses to the ‘Old’ Summer Palace and on to the Botanical Garden, Sleeping Buddha Temple, and various other western scenic spots here.

Most visitors take a ferry from the Marble Boat to near the Shíqī Kǒng Qíao (十七孔桥, Seventeen-Arch Bridge) or vice versa, but following the rim of the lake past the old boathouse and south along the slender West Causeway (西提, Xī Dī) takes you on a highly-recommended peaceful walk past various further pavilions and over several grand bridges down to the southeast corner. You can then walk up the eastern shore to the bridge. To view the whole site and take this long promenade will take a good half day. A useful bilingual sketch map Guide to the Summer Palace (走进颐和园, Zǒujìn Yíhé Yuán ) is on sale at most entrances, ¥10.

The graceful Seventeen-Arch Bridge crosses to a small island housing the Lóng Wáng Miào (龙王庙, Temple of the Dragon King), dedicated to a water-controlling deity. Like the Marco Polo Bridge (see p.402), the carved lions on the balustrades are all supposed to be individual. At the eastern end of the bridge is an octagonal pavilion housing stelae with Qiánlóng’s poetry, and just to the north is a bronze ox dating from Qiánlóng’s expansion of the site, there to suppress river dragons. At the urging of their parents, urchins clamber over the railings that are there to protect the life-size beast, and sit on its shiny back for photographs. Between here and the main entrance there was once a maelstrom of pedalos and other leisure craft, ice-cream stalls, electronic rifle ranges, and other amusements, which were mercifully suppressed before the UNESCO inspectors came and the site was added to the World Heritage list in 1998. Once that was safely accomplished the pedalos returned, and in 2008 some of the ancient buildings beyond the Xiéqù Yuán (谐趣园, Garden of Harmonious Interests) in the park’s northeast corner were turned into the luxury Aman Summer Palace resort. While that might seem much in keeping with the palace’s original function, it may reasonably be assumed that UNESCO experts were not consulted as required. Nevertheless, the Chinese usually neither conserve nor build afresh to this standard, and the resort is well worth visiting even for those who cannot afford its luxurious rooms.

On your way back to the main gate you also pass the tomb of a descendant of the Khitan Mongol Liáo dynasty, who was an adviser on Chinese matters to Genghis Khan.

Yíhé Yuán, about 12km northwest of the city centre, in Hǎidiàn, t 6288 1144, en.summerpalace-china.com, www.yiheyuan.com, 6.30am–6pm, April 1–Oct 31; otherwise 7am–5pm; park open to dusk year-round. ¥30, winter ¥20 (park only); ¥60, winter ¥50 for the lián piào (联票, ‘through ticket’) including all sights. m Běi Gōng Mén (Line 4, exit D); South Gate of Summer Palace (Western Suburban Line, 2017). b to 颐和园: 330, 330快车, 331, 332, 346, 394, 508, 579, 601, 608, 683, 690, 696, 718, 732, 801.

For a change of pace, take the opportunity to travel by boat on a choice of routes from either the dock at Bā-Yī Hú, the lake inside Yùyuān Tán Park behind the Military Museum; or behind the Exhibition Centre, just east of the Zoo. This was the method often chosen by the emperors and Cíxǐ herself. Boats run from 1 April to 30 November (outside these dates the waterways may be frozen), and on either route in either direction the cost is ¥40 one-way, ¥70 return (you must say on which boat you plan to come back), with reduced prices for children 1.2–1.4m, and those under 1.2m free. Outbound trips leave hourly from 10am up to and including 4pm, and return from 11am up to and including 5pm. Boats arrive at a dock at the far southeastern corner of the Summer Palace within sight of the elegant camel-backed bridge, the Xiùyī Qiáo (绣漪桥), a pleasant lakeside stroll from the main sights. For the latest schedule: t 8836 3576. For a more luxurious trip, contact the Shangri-La Hotel, which runs its own boat, also offering commentary in English and a flask of chilled tea.

The ¥60 ticket includes access to the Fóxiāng Gé (佛香阁, Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, otherwise ¥10), which is the main tower dominating the site; Sūzhōu Jiē (苏州街, ¥10), where the imperial family and eunuchs would play at shopping and shopkeepers, now recreated for the purposes of modern commerce; the Déhé Yuán (德和园, Garden of Virtue and Harmony, ¥5), Cíxǐ’s theatre; and the relatively recent Wénchāng Yuàn (文昌院, ¥20) with displays of mostly Qīng art. An audio guide is available for ¥40 with ¥100 deposit.

There are main three Palace Gates: the primary Dōng Gōng Mén (东宫门) in the east, the Xīn Jiàn Gōng Mén (新建宫门, New Palace Gate) a little way south, and the Běi Gōng Mén (北宫门) north gate closest to the metro station, which offers a quieter way in.

Most buses arrive at and depart from the main east gate, where a sign board announces the number of visitors the previous day, which can easily number 20,000.

Restaurants within the Summer Palace are mostly avoidable, although there are various snack outlets, too. There’s a cluster of better restaurants opposite the North Gate, and assorted top-end Chinese and Western dining within the Aman Summer Palace, a hotel of converted halls in its own enclosure near the main gate. m Line 4 will take you to more of the site, now known as the ‘Old’ Summer Palace, as will b 331, 508, 579, and 696. b 331 will take you in the opposite direction to the Běijīng Botanical Gardens contaning the Sleeping Buddha Temple and more.

See Gate of Good Luck, Construction and Corruption, ‘Old’ Summer Palace, Architecture and Xenophobia.

Next in Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond: Gate of Good Luck (story)
Previously: Introduction to the Summer Palaces
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For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.