Architectural Odyssey

Summer Palace

Updated: Aug 16, 2019 Print
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The Qing Dynasty imperial garden, the Summer Palace, or Garden of the Preservation of Harmony (Yihe yuan), was designed by integrating a water resource with surrounding hills. It boasts both palatial magnificence and natural beauty. The 3.08-square-kilometer garden was built on the basis of Kunming Lake (Kunming hu), which occupies three-quarters of the entire area. Historical architecture of different styles are scattered on the Hill of Myriad Longevity (Wanshou shan) as well as on the man-made isles. The garden highly embodies the Chinese gardening practice of "designing a garden as if it was naturally created."

Distant view of architecture of varied styles embellishing the Hill of Myriad Longevity ( Wanshou shan) [Photo/IC]

Built in 1750, in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Summer Palace evolved from the Garden of Clear Ripples (Qingyi yuan). In 1860, it was savagely burned down by Anglo-French coalition troops during the Second Opium War (1856-1860). Twenty-six years later in 1886 by appropriating funds from the navy, the Qing government mandated its reconstitution as the residence of the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) after her retirement as unofficial ruler of the state. The current name, Garden of the Preservation of Harmony (Yihe yuan), was adopted in 1888.

A quiet garden scene in the Summer Palace [Photo/IC]

A second demolition by fire of the garden occurred in 1900 at the hands of the Eight-Nation Alliance, but renovation took place in 1902. Multiple further renovations were implemented after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Major scenic spots in the garden have now been restored, including the Four Great Regions, Suzhou Street, Jingming Tower, Danningtang Hall, Wenchang Hall, and the Picture of Tilling and Weaving Scenic Area.

Covered corridors intersect at a pavilion with double-eaved circular roofs in the Summer Palace [Photo/IC]

Kunming Lake

Kunming Lake was originally a natural lake formed by the convergence of numerous springs in the northwest suburbs of Beijing. After the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) set its capital in Beijing, the spring water from Changping district and other water sources were diverted into the lake, forming a reservoir for controlling the water level of the canal linking the capital city and the south. By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), with numerous lotuses planted in the water, and the nearby rice fields, temples, and pavilions, the lake bore a striking resemblance to the landscape south of the Yangtze River.

Kunming Lake seen from the Hill of Myriad Longevity [Photo/IC]

Kunming Lake was named by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) who ordered its expansion to its present size. The lake is designed to represent the traditional Chinese gardening practice of "one pool containing three fairy isles". Three isles have been constructed in the lake.

The three man-made isles in the vast Kunming Lake; each is ingeniously landscaped. [Photo/]

The sparkling lake, the winding dam, the juxtaposed isles, and various buildings hidden in the surrounding landscape, constitute the signature waterscape of the Summer Palace. Multidisciplinary analysis in the 1990s proved that the lake has a history of 3,500 years.

Seventeen-Arch Bridge

The bridge stretches like a rainbow, linking one of the Isles with the east bank of Kunming Lake [Photo/]

The bridge stretches like a rainbow, linking one of the Isles with the east bank of Kunming Lake [Photo/]

Built in 1750 during the Qianlong reign, the 150-meter-long bridge is the longest in Chinese imperial gardens. Over 500 stone lions in different postures decorate the posts of the bridge railings. At each end of the bridge are two carved beasts, mighty and powerful, which are regarded as the masterpiece of Qing stone carvings.

Tower of Buddhist Fragrance (Foxiang ge)

The Tower of Buddhist Fragrance perches on the side of the Hill of Myriad Longevity, overlooking Kunming Lake. [Photo/]

Built during the Qianlong reign, the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance was burned down by Anglo-French forces in 1860 and restored during the Guangxu reign (1875-1908). The three-storey, 36.44-meter-high, four-eaved octagonal building stands on a 20-meter-tall stone platform and is the highlight of the whole garden. It enshrines a gilded statue of the standing 1000-armed Avalokitesvara. The statue is five meters in height, five tons in weight, and predates the tower -- it was built in the Wanli reign of the Ming Dynasty.

The Stone Boat

The stone boat now has a Western style cabin. [Photo/IC]

Completed in 1755 during the Qianlong reign, the 36-meter long boat was built on water with large chunks of stone as its frame. The original wooden cabin in traditional Chinese style was burned in 1860, and was replaced by a Western style one in 1893.

Sea of Wisdom (Zhihui hai)

More than a thousand Buddha statues are embedded on the exterior walls of the Sea of Wisdom. [Photo/IC]

Commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor, the Sea of Wisdom is a religious sanctuary built of brick and stone. The arched stone structure replaced beams to bear the weight of the roof. The ceiling and the wall paintings are decorated with glazed tiles. Over a thousand niches containing Amitabha Buddha statues on the exterior walls and other Buddhist statues in the hall houses are all dated to the Qianlong period. In 1900, the glazed Buddha statues on the exterior walls were brutally damaged by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

Garden of Harmonious Pleasures (Xiequ yuan)

A corner of the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures [Photo/IC]

Modeled on the famous Garden of Lodging One's Expansive Feelings (Jichang yuan) in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, the Garden of Harmonious Pleasures was built in 1751. Burned down by Anglo-French forces in 1860, it was refurbished in 1892. Covered corridors, twisting and turning, connect towers, pavilions, halls, and bridges along the large pond. Roaming around the garden, one finds that each step forward leads to different scenery.

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