Monday, 29 April 2019

A Jewel in Beijing - The Summer Palace on Kunming Lake

I must confess that I hadn't heard of Beijing's Summer Palace before this trip so it was a delightful discovery for me. It is a jewel of a place and visiting it was a lovely and fitting way to end a tour of some of the best sights of China.

The Summer Palace stretches along the edge of Kunming Lake and up Longevity Hill
Built by Qing emperor, Qianlong between 1750 and 1764, as a summer retreat, the Summer Palace, beside Lake Kunming, has a very colourful history. Originally a reservoir for Beijing's water supply, the 450 acre lake was entirely man made with the excavated soil used to build Longevity Hill overlooking the lake. Despite the fact that the garden contains a number of halls, pavilions, palaces, temples and bridges it did not have the facilities for long term stays or diplomatic meetings so the emperor chose not live there, using it instead for day visits only

The 728 metre Long Corridor,  for a sheltered walk in the rain

As the Qing dynasty declined the Summer Palace became neglected and was looted and burned in 1860 by the British and French during the second opium war. This wanton destruction has never been forgotten by the Chinese, however, in 1884, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, his mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, used funds intended for the navy to repair and enlarge the Palace to celebrate her 60th birthday.  One of the best features of the palace, and my favourite is the 728 metre Long Corridor, skirting the lake edge, built so that the Empress Dowager could exercise in all weathers.  It is lavishly decorated with paintings of places in China and scenes from Chinese folk tales and mythology. It is stunningly beautiful, I would be more than happy to exercise there daily.

The  Summer Palace was damaged again in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion when the Eight Nation Alliance looted the artifacts and destroyed the gardens.  Two years later the palace was once again restored. In 1914 the palace was opened to the public but after the revolution of 1949 was used as a meeting place for Mao Zedong and some top ranking communist party officials. Finally, in 1953, restorations and renovations were done to the palace and it was opened to the public once again.
UNESCO have added it to their world heritage list stating that it is "a masterpiece of Chinese landscape design".

A serene and beautiful corner of the Summer Palace gardens

I love the names of the buildings and pavilions - Hall of Jade Billows, Hall of Joy and Longevity, Hall of Dispelling Clouds, Pavilion of Precious Clouds, Oriole Listening Hall, Garden of Harmonious Pleasures - to name a few. Overlooking all, from the top of Longevity Hill, is the eight storey high Tower of Buddhist Incense where the Dowager Empress went to pray and burn incense. At one end of the complex is the Marble Boat, a purely decorative 96 metre long western style paddle steamer, built to replace a burnt out wooden one which was used as a summer house and for excursions on the lake.  Needless to say the marble boat cannot float.  At the other end of the complex is the graceful, 17 arch bridge.

The ornate and purely decorative Marble Boat

Above: Exercise class in the palace grounds
Left: Writing poetry in water as a contemplation
exercise. It disappears as quickly as it is written

There is so much to see in this beautiful place.  I could have spent a whole day there.  Apart from the surroundings and buildings I loved seeing the Chinese enjoying the grounds for activities such as exercise classes, dancing, watching magicians and writing poetry in water as a form of contemplation. And, I also found some lovely serene corners of the gardens to just enjoy their beauty on my own.  I highly recommend a visit to The Summer Palace.

Left: The Tower of Buddhist Incense on top of Longevity Hill

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