Summer Palaces

Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng’s coverage of Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond

The suburbs of Peking are very extensive. We were fifteen minutes from our entering the east suburb to the east gate. We were above two hours in our progress through the city, fifteen minutes from the west gate to the end of the west suburb and two hours from thence to Yuan-ming Yuan. The house at this last place allotted for our habitation consists of several small courts and separate pavilions, and is situated in a little park or garden, laid out in the Chinese manner with serpentine walks, a narrow winding river forming an island with a summer-house in the middle of it, a grove of various trees interspersed with a few patches of grassy ground diversified with inequalities and roughed with rocks, the whole surrounded with a high wall and guarded by a detachment of troops at the gate. Some of the apartments are large, handsome, and not ill-contrived, but the whole building is so much out of repair that I already see it will be impossible to reside in it comfortably during the winter. It appears, indeed, to be only calculated for a summer dwelling, though I understand it is the best of the hotels at this place destined (as several more are) for the reception of foreign ambassadors.

Lord Macartney, An Embassy to China, London, 1797

Macartney was particularly proud of the sprung carriages in which his party rode during his 1793–4 embassy to the Qiánlóng emperor and imagined that they would be widely copied when left behind, but foreign residents in the 1940s were still complaining about the bone-shattering effects of the springless Peking cart. The invention of the internal combustion engine having also led to the the creation of traffic jams, it can still take an hour to get out to the site of the pavilions Macartney describes, and m line 4 will serve you better.

There are now two summer palaces to the northwest of Běijīng, about 10km from the centre, one of which is usually known as the Summer Palace, and the other as the Old Summer Palace. Neither should be confused with the Summer Resort at Chéngdé, three hours to the northeast. The (by implication) newer palace is visited by almost everyone who reaches Běijīng, but the ‘old’ one by few.

The ‘new’ Summer Palace had its foundation during the pre-Mongol Jīn dynasty as a stopping place for travelling emperors around 1153. During the Mongol Yuán dynasty (1279–1368), the efforts of the hydrologist Guō Shǒujìng (see Guō Shǒujìng Memorial Hall) to bring water supplies to Běijīng included improving the lake. The area was prettily cultivated during the Míng (1368–1644), with further imperial palaces established, and then considerably redeveloped and expanded by the Kāngxī emperor (1749–64) in celebration of his mother’s 60th birthday (as were parts of Chéngdé), and renamed Yíhé Yuán, or Garden of the Preservation of Harmony. It was one park in a large area of parks and gardens belonging to Qīng princes, and considerably predated the ‘old’ Summer Palace of Yuánmíng Yuán (圆明园), the Garden of the Perfect Brightness. This general name is now given to a group of three Qīng gardens built from 1709, the Yuánmíng Yuán eventually absorbing the other two, the Qǐ Chūn Yuán (绮春园, Garden of Gorgeous Spring) and Cháng Chūn Yuán (长春园, Garden of Eternal Spring).

By the time of the Qiánlóng emperor, this was one of the most extensive areas of palaces and parklands in the world and was compared to Versailles, although as Macartney pointed out, it was already fading in grandeur. His accommodation was not suitable for winter because the court had decided even before his embassy arrived that neither he nor any of his party would be staying. His requests including the proposal to leave a permanent trade representative in the capital, were comprehensively rejected.

Modern misconceptions of the differing antiquity of the two park areas, and their relative importance, is due to the rather substantial drop in grandeur brought about by Anglo-French military forces in October 1860. They removed or destroyed many of the treasures, set fire to what would burn, and pulled down what wouldn’t. And that, as far as the Chinese authorities are concerned, is all you or other visitors to the two sites need to know. Signs repeatedly bring it to your attention.

There is, of course, more to the story. Whether appropriate or not, the troops’ destruction of the Summer Palace on the orders of Lord Elgin was intended to punish the dynasty for the execution and imprisonment of foreign envoys who had been sent to Běijīng to complete the implementation of the Treaty of Tiānjīn, forced on China at the end of the Arrow War in 1858. There was also much looting by local people.

It was China as a whole that suffered as the Empress Dowager Cíxǐ spent vast amounts of her country’s limited funds including allegedly those intended for use in building a modern navy, to rebuild the southwestern section, now the ‘new’ Summer Palace. This suborning of the national interest to her own personal tastes is regarded as a major betrayal, while providing a handy face-saving excuse for China’s defeat at the hands of the upstart Japanese in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895. Cíxǐ was perhaps sensitive enough to public opinion to write an edict in the name of the Guāngxù emperor saying that he was undertaking the repairs out of gratitude to her, and to have him sign it, but no one was fooled. Popular opinion in subsequent years had it that even if the navy had been built it would certainly have been sunk on its first engagement.

Further punishment was inflicted on the Qīng following the relief of the Siege of the Legations, and Cíxǐ’s investment in rebuilding was once again lost to the flames. Finding, probably to her astonishment, that the Qīng were still to be left in control of the country, she set about rebuilding the same section again once she returned to Běijīng from exile in Xī’ān, completing its reconstruction in 1902. Meanwhile the Yuánmíng Yuán, the ‘old’ Summer Palace, was abandoned, and much of it went back under the plough while peasants carted away useful portions of the remains for their own building purposes, and continued doing so until the 1970s. The ‘new’ Summer Palace is new because it’s been twice rebuilt, and the ‘old’ one is old because it hasn’t.

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

Next in Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond: Summer Palace
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