The Old Summer Palace (The Winter Palace)
The winter palace is located in the northern part of Haidian District in Beijing. It is composed of three comparatively independent but interconnected gardens: Yuanmingyuan, Changchunyuan (Garden of Eternal Spring), and Qichunyuan (Garden of Blossoming Spring). Covering an area of about 350 hectares, The Winter Palace was a vast landscaped garden at once grand in scale and enchanting in scenery. Its green hills and exquisite architecture were laid out with picturesque appeal, and decorated with thriving trees and beautiful flowers. As to close sights, the rolling hills and maze of streams and lakes divided the whole garden into more than 100 scenes, their captivating beauty enhanced by a host of pavilions, corridors, islands, and bridges. About 40 percent of the garden was covered by rivers and lakes, connected into an integral system by winding streams and dotted with more than 250 hills and rock formations. The water's constant murmur rendered life and soul to the hills and rocks. And together they transformed the entire complex into a landscaping and horticultural miracle which stood comparison with the beauty of the natural scenery south of the Yangtze River.
The Winter Palace was not only famed for its beauty. It was also an imperial museum with a vast collection of cultural treasures. The French writer Victor Hugo once remarked, "With all its treasures, Notre Dame in Paris is no match for the Winter Palace, that enormous and magnificent museum in the East." Furniture made of red sandalwood decorated the numerous halls in which countless rare cultural relics were on display. As one of the four most famous imperial libraries, the Wenyuan Hall (Hall of Literary Profundity) in the garden originally housed such precious ancient books as The Complete Library of Four Branches of Books, Gems of the Complete Library of Four Branches of Books, and The Completed Collection of Graphs and Writings of Ancient and Modern Times.
However, the skill and sophistication of the builders of this historic "Garden of Gardens," and the cultural treasures contained within it, failed to escape the destruction inflicted on China by the Western powers. In October 1860, the Anglo-French forces sacked and looted the Winter Palace and burned it to the ground. From then on, the garden suffered continual damage at the hands of the warlords, bandits, and the Eight-Power Allied Forces. Its former beauty and glory no more, the entire garden lay in clusters of ruins and debris. In hushed silence it bore witness to the atrocities of the Western powers and the corruption and incompetence of the Qing rulers, and admonished the Chinese people never to forget the tragedy.
The wheels of history, however, move on inexorably. The Winter Palace has since undergone great changes, after the birth of the People's Republic. The Chinese government has attached great importance to the preservation of the ruins. The district and municipal governments have placed the Palace on a list of key cultural sites under special protection. Residential land has been requisitioned, and massive reforestation efforts have been carried out. Decades of painstaking work has turned half of the garden into green groves teeming with hundreds of thousands of trees. Most of the building foundations have been unearthed, and the remains of over a dozen scenic rock formations duly preserved. The existing carved marble masonry of the European Palaces has been pieced together to become a tourist attraction in its own right.
A short journey back in history is revealing. To facilitate such a journey, the local government of Haidian District set up an administrative office for the Winter Palace in November 1976, which has made remarkable progress in protecting the ruins and reforesting the area. The framework of the European Palaces has been partly restored. Roads and basic facilities for the eastern half of the garden have been built and gradually improved. As a result, the number of tourists attracted to the site is increasing annually.
The guiding principle for the park's development is to transform the lakes and streams and plant trees on a large scale, while accentuating the importance of the historical ruins as a prominent feature of the Winter Palace. Accordingly, park workers and staff members have spared no efforts to preserve the sights, reconstruct the buildings, and restore the water system, hills, and rock gardens. Their efforts made it possible for the park to be opened to the public on a trial basis in June 1988. In the same year, the park was designated by the State Council as a key cultural site at the national level.
To highlight the characteristics of the ruins, the Administrative Office has put them under meticulous care during the course of restoration. They have cleared certain sites, and erected description boards for the benefit of visitors. Over the past decade, they have repaired bridges, paved roads, cleared lakes, and reforested the hills. Furthermore, they have built many service facilities and purchased more than 300 pleasure-boats to ply the serene waters of the garden. Thus visitors from all over the world can now capture some of the original beauty of this summer resort, and appreciate the glamour of more than a dozen replicas of ancient buildings, under the cooling shade of glorious trees. The district and municipal authorities and the former State Education Commission also designated the Winter Palace as a national education base.
The eastern half of the garden has gradually taken shape, where a number of scenic areas are open to tourists, such as the Fuhai Scenic Area, the eastern part of Qichunyuan, and the European Palaces of Changchunyuan, which have regained their past glory with green hills and blue water enhanced by luxuriant trees and fragrant flowers, The park has also become the venue for a series of annual festivals. Including Spring Outing Festival, the Lotus Flower Festival, and the Chrysanthemum Festival.
The Winter Palace is the most beautiful and the largest imperial garden in China. It was built at the beginning of the 12th century and has a history of over 800 years. It is now a world cultural heritage site.
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Best Time to Visit: April-November