Beijing’s Summer Palace: Intrigue in the Imperial Gardens

The Summer Palace at sunset.  Longevity hill viewed from lake Kunming.
© 昊 周/

Few places better embody the tragic legacy of China’s last dynasty, the Qing, than the “New” Summer Palace in northwestern Beijing. Completed in 1764, the New Summer Palace was built by the Emperor Qianlong (the last great Qing emperor) for his mother’s 60th birthday. Qianlong lavished attention on its design, endowing it with vast gardens, pavilions for study, and long covered walkways. For almost 100 years afterwards, the Palace would be a place where China’s emperors could find respite from the demands of governing, enjoying a day out on the lake or a stroll through the gardens. Some like Qianlong would retire to one of its many pavilions where they would compose poetry to the beauty of the Palace’s scenery.

This tranquillity came to a calamitous end in 1860, when a combined Anglo-French army looted and razed both the Old and New Summer Palaces. However, while the Old Summer Palace was never rebuilt, the New Summer Palace would be restored by the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1888.  In so doing, she would change its aesthetic from Qianlong’s preferred themes celebrating contemplation and Confucian ethics to one glorifying the dynasty and – by extension – the Empress herself.

The Summer Palace – History and Heritage

I first visited the Summer Palace during a class trip in 2007, when I lived in Beijing as a foreign-exchange student.  The trip was led by our calligraphy professor.  He – like the Emperors of the Qing dynasty – was of Manchu origin, an ethnic group with roots in Northeastern China.  As we strolled through the halls and gardens of the old palace, he told us stories of his grandfather who worked in the Summer Palace as a court official during the final days of the Qing dynasty.  This professor would occasionally allude to the price he had paid for his heritage – a familial connection to the imperial court had cost him educational opportunities and, for a 5-year period, his freedom.  However, on this occasion, he showed only pride.

As someone who had dedicated his life to the art of Chinese calligraphy, he was perhaps uniquely capable of appreciating the Palace’s beauty.  Unlike the Forbidden City (which was a public symbol of imperial power), the Summer Palace is a more intimate expression of court aesthetics. 

Located northwest of Beijing’s city center, the palace lies on the edge of Lake Kunming, a 2.2 square kilometer reservoir built during the Yuan dynasty. Most of the Palace’s primary structures are located on Longevity Hill, which overlooks the lake.  Qianlong imagined the Palace to be a place of tranquility and contemplation, ideal for study or composing poetry. Upon its completion, he named it Qingyiyuan – the Garden of Clear Ripples.

Wide shot of the Summer Palace taken from Lake Kunming.  The Tower of Buddha Fragrance and Sea of Wisdom Temple sit prominently on Longevity Hill.
Front of Longevity Hill Viewed from Lake Kunming . (© ABCDstock/

The Garden of Clear Ripples

Although Qianlong built Qingyiyuan as a gift for his mother’s 60th birthday, she would be 74 before construction was completed.   For 15 long years, palace construction dragged on with Qianlong himself frequently visiting the site to give directions (records show he visited the palace 47 times in one year alone).  Part of the reason the palace’s construction took so long was that Qianlong became dissatisfied with the initial design.  After touring southern China, he insisted that the grounds of the Summer Palace incorporate design elements he had seen in the famed private gardens of Suzhou and Hangzhou’s West Lake.  With the power of the imperial purse at his command, Qianlong would get his wish. 

In designing and constructing the Palace, no expense was spared or detail overlooked.  Major feats of engineering were carried out, including the reshaping of Longevity Hill and the expansion of Kunming Lake.  Artificial streams and ponds were created, around which were planted wild flowers, weeping willows, cypresses, and pines.  Pavilions and stone bridges dotted the gardens, together with private studies. All of these elements were blended seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.  This gave the sense of one living in nature, even as the landscape was in fact highly cultivated.

Image of Summer Palace landscape.  Lotus flowers bloom on the Summer Palace's West Lake. Jade Spring Hill, topped by the Yufeng Pagoda, is visible in the background.
Lotus flowers bloom on the Summer Palace’s West Lake. Jade Spring Hill, topped by the Yufeng Pagoda, is visible in the background. (© Bill Perry/

Beyond simply being an homage to classical garden design, Qianlong also wanted the palace to be a place for reflection on Buddhist teachings.  To achieve this, he had the palace grounds crowned with two Buddhist temples: the Tower of Buddha Fragrance and the Sea of Wisdom Temple.  Richly decorated, the Tower of Buddha Fragrance rises high over Lake Kunming.  As the tallest structure in the entire complex, it is visible from nearly every point on the palace grounds.  The name, Tower of Buddha Fragrance, evokes the famed Vimalakirti Sutra, which describes a world in which the dharma is transmitted through a fragrance emitted by the trees. Qianlong must have imagined that the ambiance created by the trees and flowers of his gardens would have a similar effect.

Buddhist structures in the Summer Palace.  The richly decorated Tower of Buddha Fragrance. The Sea of Wisdom Temple is visible behind.
The richly decorated Tower of Buddha Fragrance. The Sea of Wisdom Temple is visible behind. (© Aliaksei/

Just to the north of the tower – at the top of Longevity Hill – lies the Sea of Wisdom Temple.  The large two story building is covered in bright yellow and green glazed tiles.  1,008 of them have images of the Buddha inlaid.  In the center of the temple is a seated statue of Avalokiteshvara, known in China as Guanyin – the Perceiver of Sound.  Guanyin is the embodiment of the compassion of all Buddhas. Her name is a reference to her vow to answer the cries and pleas of all living beings.  In China, she is also the protector of women and children – an appropriate theme given that the palace was a gift for Qianlong’s mother.  The prominence of these two buildings serves as a reminder of the centrality of Buddhism in Qianlong’s life.

War Reaches the Summer Palace

Qianlong would make periodic visits to the Summer Palace until his death in 1799.  His heirs continued to enjoy its gardens for another 61 years, even as a series of internal and external crises gradually weakened the dynasty.  The weight of these events would finally reach the Summer Palace in 1860.  In that year, a combined Anglo-French force made landfall in northern China and marched into the outskirts of Beijing.  There, they looted and razed both the Old and New Summer Palaces; extinguishing the tranquil beauty of Qianlong’s gardens.

Ruins of the nearby Old Summer Palace.
Ruins of the Old Summer Palace (credit: 钉钉CC BY-SA 4.0)

The stage for this foreign invasion had actually been set during Qianlong’s reign.  Though generally regarded as a competent Emperor by historians, Qianlong had allowed corruption to fester within the imperial bureaucracy and military.  This corruption squeezed the peasants, causing them to rise up in the White Lotus Rebellion in 1794. This rebellion took ten years to put down, shattering both the tranquility of Qianlong’s final years and, more importantly, the perceived invincibility of the Manchu banner armies. Two emperors later, a man believing himself to be Christ’s younger brother initiated another uprising – the Taiping Rebellion.  The exceptionally chaotic and violent Taiping Rebellion lasted from 1850-1864.  Some historians estimate that more died in the Taiping Rebellion than any other conflict in human history.  The combined toll of corruption and rebellion hammered state finances, bankrupting the empire and greatly diminishing imperial authority.

It was in this state of weakness and distraction that the Qing then had to deal with a series of unprecedented external crises.  The British had been sending ships to buy tea at Guangzhou (often referred to as Canton) since 1713.  They had traditionally purchased the tea with silver, but sometimes also with cotton or manufactured goods.  In the early part of the 19th century, they found another good to trade for tea – opium.  The British worked to develop their Indian opium into a product perfectly suited to the Chinese market.  Even the packaging was carefully designed to please Chinese purchasers.  These investments would generate enormous returns.  China’s opium imports grew exponentially, leading to huge outflows of silver which threatened to bring down the Qing economy.  When Qing officials took action against foreign opium traffickers, Britain went to war – twice.  It was during the Second Opium War that the Summer Palace was destroyed.

British ships land troops on Chusan Island during the First Opium War.  British troops and cannon onboard the ships engage enemy fortifications.  Both Summer Palaces would be destroyed when Western Soldiers sailed further north during the Second Opium War.
British forces land at Chusan during the First Opium War (by Edward Cree). This must have felt like an alien invasion to the inhabitants. (wikicommons)

The Empress’s Reign

Portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos.  Cixi had the Summer Palace restored between 1884-1895.
Painting of the Empress Dowager Cixi by Hubert Vos (wikicommons)

By the 1860’s, the Empire seemed on the verge of collapse.  It was at this point that a new figure took charge – the Empress Dowager Cixi.  When her husband (the Xianfeng emperor) died in 1861, her five-year old son ascended the throne as the Tongzhi Emperor.  Cixi and a group of allies used the opportunity to seize power, pushing aside those her husband had chosen to rule in the Tongzhi Emperor’s name.  Once in power, Cixi and her allies engineered the Tongzhi Restoration, which finally put an end to the Taiping rebellion and began limited reforms of the economy and bureaucracy.  China also established a foreign ministry, moving away from the tributary state model of foreign relations that had so provoked the West.  Historians assess that these reforms were critical in bringing the dynasty back from the brink, keeping it in power for another 50 years.

When the Tongzhi Emperor died of smallpox at the age of 18, Cixi engineered the ascendance of her four-year old nephew to the throne, thus prolonging her regency.  The Guangxu Emperor would eventually go on to rule for nine years (from 1889-1898). However, even in this period, Cixi remained influential; commanding the loyalty of a powerful conservative faction at court.  In 1898, rumors reached Cixi that the Guangxu Emperor intended to have her arrested.  It is unclear if the rumors were true or not.  Regardless, Cixi immediately had the Emperor removed and imprisoned.  Following this, she once again took the throne, holding power until her death in 1908 (outliving the Guangxu Emperor by one day).  Four years later, the 268 year-old Qing dynasty would end for good.

Drawing of the Guangxu Emperor, who would be overthrown during a conservative coup launched by Cixi.
The Guangxu Emperor. He would govern for only 9 years before being arrested at the Empress’s command. (Wikicommons)

Throughout her reign, Cixi’s guiding star was the protection of dynastic power.  She understood that the preservation of imperial grandeur was key to achieving this aim.  Nowhere is this more evident than in her restoration of the Summer Palace.  Restoration work began in 1884, 24 years after its destruction during the Second Opium War.  It would take 11 years to fully restore the palace.  To pay for this massively expensive project, Cixi famously diverted funds that had been set aside to finance the modernization of the Qing navy, which had been handily defeated by the British during the two opium wars.  Cixi would retain much of the Summer Palace’s original architecture and garden design, but would also put her own unique imprint on it. 

The Palace of the Empress Dowager

Cixi’s changes started with the name.  She discarded Qingyiyuan – the Garden of Clear Ripples – for Yiheyuan – the Garden of Preserving Harmony.  Unlike under Qianlong and his immediate successors, the Summer Palace would no longer be a day-trip destination.  It was now a primary residence for the imperial family.  Luxurious living quarters were added as well as new halls to host extravagant celebrations.  One frequently quoted historical record reports, “(The Empress Dowager Cixi) rebuilt the Summer Palace with unbounded extravagance and opulence, spending some 40,000 taels of silver per day.  Singing and dancing went on without end.”

Pictorial Depiction of the Summer Palace Circa 1888.
Pictorial Depiction of the Summer Palace Circa 1888 (Wikicommons)

Among her most important additions was an elaborate three-level outdoor Chinese opera stage.  Cixi loved the theater and would have performances put on twice per month at the Summer Palace.  Senior officials and eunuchs would frequently join her on these occasions, sipping tea and bamboo juice as the performers (all men) sang arias and beat drums.  Cixi is said to have preferred classical plays depicting Buddhist legends, but also reviewed new story ideas, occasionally supporting their production.  Cixi’s patronage is credited with giving new life to Peking opera, which today is the most popular form of Chinese traditional theater.

Black and white photo of Peking Opera performers performing in 1979.
Peking Opera Performance (Wikicommons)

But the Summer Palace offered much more than just diversions.  It also became a place to manage affairs of state.  In its luxurious halls, the Guangxu Emperor and Empress Cixi would receive foreign dignitaries and hold audiences with key advisors.  From here, policy was set, orders given, and armies dispatched.  Most official business took place in the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity.  Under Qianlong, the building was named the Hall of Good Governance.  Plaques placed in the hall read: “virtuous officials are precious even in good years,” “conscientiously work for the people,” “in prosperity, think of adversity.”  Under Cixi, the hall’s original theme celebrating the upright Confucian scholar-official was muted in favor of symbols representing longevity and the imperial family. 

Cixi’s most famous addition to the Summer Palace, however, was not its luxurious halls or an opera stage. It was her marble boat. This “boat” is actually a wooden structure built on top of a marble base in Lake Kunming.  The marble base is carved to resemble the hull of a ship and even includes mock side paddle wheels in imitation of a Western steam ship.  The interior roof of the structure was covered with mirrors to reflect the shimmering light from the lake’s surface, giving the impression of being immersed in an aquatic environment. As the funds used to reconstruct the Summer Palace were originally meant to pay for the Qing navy, the marble boat has become a poignant symbol of the Empress’s vanity.

Cixi's famous marble boat.  This is perhaps the most well known structure in the entire Summer Palace.
Picture of Cixi’s Marble Boat, taken sometime between 1912-1949. (Wikicommons)

The Legacy of the Summer Palace

Like the Emperor and Empress who built it, the Summer Palace has a complex legacy.  On the one hand, it is admired as the finest example of imperial garden design still in existence.  But it is also wound up in the complex and painful history of China’s wars with the West and the failure of the Qing dynasty to bring China into the modern age.  To the degree that the Summer Palace is known to those living outside of Beijing, it is for the Empress Dowager’s marble boat, which has taken on the air of Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake.”   

But after the loss of the Second Opium War and the devastation of the Taiping rebellion, the Empress Dowager might also have sensed a keen need to restore imperial grandeur.  The restoration of the Summer Palace would have done just that, calling to mind the more prosperous and stable Qianlong era.  Perhaps she viewed the investment in the navy as wasteful, or at least insufficient to meaningfully change the military balance of power in China’s favor.  If that were the case, why not invest in beauty?  Whatever her motivation, whether simple vanity or a higher sensibility, it was her sense of culture that survives even as the dynasty it was meant to sustain has long since vanished.

Sources/Further Reading

  1. Siu, Victoria M.. Gardens of a Chinese Emperor : Imperial Creations of the Qianlong Era, 1736-1796, Lehigh University Press, 2013. 
  2. Li, Juntao; Wu, Xiaoping; The Summer Palace: A Garden Museum; Foreign Languages Press, 2018.
  3. UNESCO page on the Summer Gardens:
  4. Travel guide to the Summer Palace:
  5. Warner, Marina; The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz’u-hsi 1835–1908. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972. (This is an older biography of Cixi (Tz’u-hsi). I found it to be far better than some of the newer biographies on Cixi.)
  6. Fantastic images of the Qing Court during the latter part of Cixi’s reign:
  7. Peter Ward Fay. The Opium War, 1840–1842: Barbarians in the Celestial Empire in the Early Part of the Nineteenth Century and the War by Which They Forced Her Gates Ajar. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1975. (Fantastic history of the leadup to and prosecution of the first opium war. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.)
  8. For further information on the Vimalakirti Sutra and Buddhism in China, see my post about Dunhuang, here.