Beijing is fascinating city for a history buff. The Mongols made it their capital, the Ming emperors moved their capital from Nanjing to Beijing, and then the Manchurians made this their capital. Even though there was a short period during the Nationalist government that made Nanjing the capital of China, it was quickly returned to Beijing under the Communist government.
Because of these dynasties and lineage of emperors that made Beijing their home and political base, a lot of historical buildings and imperial gardens were left behind for posterity. One of the most famous (and almost intact) imperial gardens that is still open to public today is the Summer Palace 颐和园.
Residences in Summer Palace
While this is not the official summer palace, the royalties will still come here for Buddha worship and often would stay overnight, so there are some residences left behind that give us a glimpse of how extravagant they lived.
Hall of Benevolence and Longevity 仁寿殿
Entering the East Palace Gate means walking into the administrative area of the Emperors. The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity is the first architectural complex that visitors see. It was built in 1750, burned down in 1860 by the Anglo-French allied forces, and was reconstructed in 1888.
Today, the furnishings in the hall remain as they were in the past. In the midst of the hall is a platform with a throne furnished with nine dragons, along with delicate peacock-feather fans, a monster-shaped censer, and a red sandalwood screen. The screen is more elaborate than other screens. Framed with sandalwood carved with nine dragons on the top, the middle part is a glass mirror engraved with 226 characters of “shou” symbolizing longevity in different ways. The Empress Dowager Cixi managed the affairs of court unseen, from behind the screen.
Actually, the Emperors’ administrative hall was originally called “勤政殿” to inspire rulers to manage state affairs diligently. However, during Emperor Guangxu’s time (1875 – 1908), the hall’s name was changed to “仁寿殿” (Hall of Benevolence and Longevity), from the famous Confucian saying -“the ruler who reigns benevolently will have a long life”.
Hall of Jade Ripples 玉澜堂
Next to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity to the east and the Garden of Virtue and Harmony in the north, the Hall of Jade Ripples was originally built in 1750 during the Reign of Emperor Qianlong for the purpose of dealing with state affairs. It was rebuilt in 1892 during Emperor Guangxu’s reign and used as his living quarters.
Hall of Jade Ripples is also notable for a historical event -after the failure of the Reform Movement in 1898, Emperor Guangxu, who advocated reform, was put under house arrest here by Empress Dowager Cixi. The Reform Movement, also known as the “Hundred Days Reform”, was aimed at reforming the outdated feudal system and creating a new edict. However, because of sharp disagreements between Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi as well as their fellows, the movement only lastedfor 103 days.
Emperor Guangxu was consigned to the Hall of Jade Ripples, and his six associate reformists were beheaded. In order to prevent him from escaping and accessing the outside world, brick walls were built in both annex halls so that both exits in the east and west were blocked. To the south, Cixi assigned eunuchs to watch himcontinuously. Although most of the walls have been dismantled now, a vestige of them can still be seen, as a witness of that part of Chinese history.
Yiyun House 宜芸馆
Constructed in a typical Chinese courtyard style, Yiyun House is located behind the Hall of Jade Ripples. This central structure was originally built in the reign of Emperor Qianlong for collecting books. It was named ‘Yiyun House’ because the word ‘Yun’ in Chinese is a kind of aromatic plant that can protect books from moths. Yiyuan House was a place to store books, hence its name. Burned down by the Anglo-French Allied Forces in 1860, Yiyun House was repaired during the reign of Emperor Guangxu and used as the abode of his Empress, Longyu.
Hall of Joyful Longevity 乐寿堂
With Kunming Lake in the front and Longevity Hill at the back, the Hall of Joyful Longevity, was the major construction in the living area for royalty. It was also the best place in the palace for leisure since it leads east to the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity and west to the Long Gallery.
Garden of Virtue and Harmony 德和园
Walking northward from the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, visitors will see the Garden of Virtue and Harmony, where Emperor Guangxu and Empress Dowager Cixi watched performances of the Peking opera. Borrowing from the meaning of a sentence in Zuo Commentary (the first historical annals in Chinese history), the name “Dehe” suggests “listen to a fine melody and the mind will be calm”.
This garden was built as a theater for the Empress Dowager. Its construction began in the 17th year of Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1891) and lasted for five years. The three-storey theater stage is the biggest and best-preserved wooden stage of delicate design and magnificent structure, and is therefore of much scientific and artistic value.
The Grand Theatre 大戏楼
Famous Beijing Opera actors of the Qing Dynasty such as Yang Xiaolou and Tan Xinpei would come here to perform for the Empress Dowager and the stage was regarded as the “Cradle of Beijing Opera”. The Empress Dowager also granted special permission for some of the princes, dukes and cabinet ministers to watch Beijing opera here.
Visitors can imagine the scene when the Empress Dowager watched opera in this theatre. A large number of precious articles used by emperors and empresses, as well as some of the gifts presented to the Qing court by foreign states, are on display here.
The building complexes in the front of Longevity Hill stand symmetrically with precise and perfect design. Starting from the Yunhui Yuyu 云辉玉宇 Archway in the south, the axis lines up with the Gate of Dispelling Clouds 排云门, Hall of Dispelling Clouds 排云殿, Tower of Buddhist Incense 佛香阁 and the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom 智慧海, upwards to the top of the hill. The Hall of Dispelling Clouds is a complex of buildings forming the core part of the scenic area in the foreground of the hill at its center.
Hall of Dispelling Clouds 排云殿
This building complex originated from the Da Baoen Yanshou Temple (Temple for Praying Great Gratitude and Wishing for Longevity) which was built by Emperor Qianlong as a gift for his mother’s 60th birthday. It was burned down in 1860 and rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Guangxu.
The name of the front lower part of the temple (formerly Hall of Mahavira) was changed to the complex of the Hall of Dispelling Clouds. This new name was derived from a verse by the noted poet Guo Pu (276-324) in the Jin Dynasty, saying ‘in such a splendid hall, supernatural beings will emerge’, which indicates the occupants were blessed with a prolonged life.
Empress Dowager Cixi meant to make it her bedchamber when the building was topped out, but she was taken ill when she moved in. She believed she was ill because the hall was so close to the Tower of Buddhist Incense, the Buddhist territory. Therefore, she went to live in the Hall of Joyful Longevity and only accepted congratulations and tributes on her birthday in the Hall of Dispelling Clouds.
Tower of Buddhist Incense (佛香阁)
As the symbolic structure in the Summer Palace, the Tower of Buddhist Incense was built on the Longevity Hill during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. It is a classic work of Chinese architecture. It was a religious structure originally planned to be a nine-story tower, but ordered to be dismantled and change to a Buddhist tower for worshipping Buddha when the eighth storey was under construction.
Baoyun Pavilion 宝云阁
Baoyun Bronze Pavilion is a structure with a double-eaved roof. With a height of 7.55m, it weighs 207 tonnes. The pillars, rafters, brackets, tiles, beasts on the ridges, windows and doors and even the lintel of the pavilion are all made from bronze. Greenish-grey in color, it is delicately and intricately made.
Statue of Thousand Hand Guanyin Buddha 千手观音
The Thousand-Hand Guanyin Buddha is located in the Tower of Buddhist Incense. Cast in 1574, this statue was originally named the “Statue of Guanyin Bodhisattva”. The five-meter bronze figure was gilded with a head of 4 tiers each with three faces – a total of 12 faces, and 24 arms. The statue sits on a lotus seat of nine layers of 999 petals. Cast with superb workmanship, the grand, solemn statue is of great historic and cultural value.
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