The Summer Palace, Gardens of Nurtured Harmony2016-01-12 16:13:31Share:
Thirty minutes northwest of central Beijing, lies a large park framed by a shallow, tranquil lake and a lush, pine and cypress covered hill in Haidian district - the Summer Palace. A stunning example of a created environment in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings, it was constructed as a pleasure garden for the emperors and empresses of the Qing, the last Imperial dynasty of China.
During our three hour walking seminar, led by an expert in Chinese Imperial history, we will explore this idyllic setting, tracing its various transformations, from a royal retreat destroyed by foreign invaders, to a center for administration, a residence, and now a public park and World Heritage Site.
The largest and best-preserved Imperial garden in China, the Summer Palace was historically divided into three sections with separate functions: administration, living quarters; and leisure and recreation. Focusing on the Old Court area – the center of political activities in the Palace – we will pass through the East Gate, with its separate entrances for the ruler, the high officials, and the guards. We may stop by the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, where the notorious Dowager Empress Cixi (who may or may not have killed her own nephew) and Emperor Guangxu directed state activities and held court. Abutting the Old Court, we find the residential area where the Dowager Empress Cixi made her permanent residence in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity. Cixi’s extravagance is a hallmark of the Summer Palace, with its full display coming in the form of the large Stone Boat constructed on the edge of Kunming Lake. We may also pass through the Hall of Jade Billows where Guangxu sometimes stayed.
The remainder of the Palace was designed for leisure activities, and our walk will focus on exploring these. We will pay special attention to the Long Corridor, a 2,500 foot long structure decorated with 14,000 paintings along its ceiling, each of which depict everything from scenes of Chinese literature and folktales to famous buildings and landscapes. Also of note is the Hall of Listening to Orioles, the site of the Dowager Empress’ favorite Peking opera venue. We may also walk along Suzhou Street, a life-sized playground modeled after an actual city in Eastern China, which demonstrates how the emperors sought to represent the essence of high taste from across their empire within the park. Weather permitting we will also explore the Palace from its best vantage point - a boat on Kunming Lake.
Throughout the course of this walk, we will explore the Summer Palace not only within the context of Imperial China, but also within China’s connection to the Western world. We look closely at the effects of the destruction of the Palace first by the Allied Anglo-French forces during the Second Opium War, and how Cixi’s decision to rebuild her extravagant palace (using funds earmarked for the navy) played out in the context of China’s political future.
The Summer Palace’s idyllic setting belies a rich and complex history. As we meander through this vast retreat, we will dig deeply into 19th century China, its rulers, and its relationship with the wider world. By the end of this walk, we will have a clear understanding of how China’s Imperial leaders lived, worked, and played, and how they shaped China as we know it today.
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