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Betty's Beijing Blog - Boating to the Summer Palace

2016-05-27 13:58:00Share:

May also brought several days of great out door activities for me. My first day trip of the month was a wonderful day of exploration which I have done a few times previously but, as many foreigners realize, each scenic spot in Beijing changes from visit to visit. I took a boat ride up the Grand Canal from the Exhibition Centre near the zoo to the Summer Palace. I am particularly interested in the history of the time period of Empress Cixi whose contributions to her time era remain clouded to this day due to many records which are inaccurate fictional records from her reign. Life within the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace were closed to most people in China at the time so little "first hand" event reporting emanated from the daily life. She became labeled as the "dragon lady" although much later research, books and movies have portrayed her in a somewhat rehabilitated manner. Each time that I take this boat ride, I try to relive the days of Empress Dowager Cixi ('Empress of the Western Palace') as she would take a similar boat ride on the Grand Canal from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace to spend the summer months and then, later, to live there permanently. It is amazing to think of the procession of boats which would accompany her on her journey when she went on her summer vacations. As I commenced my boat trip at the boat dock, my historical dreaming added to my experience as the dragon-styled boat drifted up the canal toward the Summer Palace.

the summer palace beijing china


The Summer Palace


  Shortly after leaving the boarding dock, my boat cruised past the huge National Library with its attractive green titled roofs. The first stop on my boat ride was the 5 Pagoda Park (Wutasi) which is a park seldom visited by tourists. Its original name, the 'Temple of True Awakening' (Zhenjuesi), was later changed to the 'Temple of Great Righteous Awakening' (Dazhengjuesi). Today, however, it is popularly referred to as the Five-Pagoda Temple Park. Hidden among trees and set amid carved stones, the temple area reveals obvious Indian influences. It was built during the Yongle Years of the Ming Dynasty, in honor of an Indian Buddhist who came to China and presented a temple blueprint to the emperor. The entire temple complex, including numerous wooden buildings, was repaired and renovated in 1761, but in the late Qing Dynasty it was looted and burned to the ground, first by the Anglo-French Allied Armies in 1860, and again by the Eight-Power Allied Force in 1900. Today, the only existing part is the monumental diamond throne pagoda. Elaborate carvings of curvaceous figures, floral patterns, birds, and hundreds of Buddhas decorate the pagoda. Also on the grounds is the Beijing Art Museum of Stone Carvings. It was a very quiet place of reflection since there were very few visitors in this park as I wandered through the grounds.


  The next stop on my boat ride was the Purple Bamboo Park (Zizhuyuan), which I had not visited previously, but I had often passed the main entrance on the street where the Beijing Zoo entrance is located. Purple Bamboo Park is one of the seven largest parks in Beijing and consists of three connecting lakes covering a very large area. This park has a long history of renovations and in this area during the Ming Dynasty, a bridge was a favorite spot for city people on the 'Qingming (Clear and Bright) Festival', where young girls rode in horse-drawn carts and city folk gathered to compete with drums and banners.

Purple Bamboo Park, Beijing, China.


Purple Bamboo Park


  After many changes in the park area over the years, the park was improved when the earth was dredged to form lakes and this earth was pilled up to form several small hills on the lakes' eastern shore to complement the natural hills that line the lakes' western shores. There are five bridges connecting the lakes, islands and hills into a single integrated area and the Changhe River flows through the park. While walking in this park, I was amazed at the variety of bamboo groves which included approximately 50 species. Contrary to the name of the park, I learned that the bamboo trees here are not a purple color and that this colorful name is only used to refer to the imperial connection of the grounds since it was at one time one of the hunting grounds of the emperors. Walking through the park enjoying the beautiful scenery, I met many Chinese residents enjoying exercise and various other outdoor activities. Strolling musicians added to the magic of the park. This beautiful park has access from the canal side or from the road near the zoo.


  I then continued my boat trip to the Summer Palace to wander the grounds as I have done many times previously. A visit to the Summer Palace, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a highlight on every tour when friends visit Beijing and it is of particular interest to me to see the places in the park which are particularly notable from the time of Empress Cixi. The Summer Palace, originally named 'Qingyi Yuan' or the 'Garden of Clear Ripples', was first constructed in 1750. It was razed to the ground by the Anglo-French but the garden survived and was rebuilt in 1886 and 1902. The landscape of the park is dominated mainly by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. The park covers an area of 2.9 square kilometers, three quarters of which is under water. Its 70,000 square meters of building space features a variety of palaces, gardens and other ancient-style architectural structures. Well known for its large and priceless collection of cultural relics, it was among the first group of historical and cultural heritage sites in China to be placed under special state protection. Leaving the boat at the dock of the Summer Palace, I entered the park by the main gate which is the East Gate, located just a short walk from the boat dock. This East Palace Gate was used, in early days, only by the Qing Dynasty emperors. Just outside the palace grounds, I stopped to enjoy a treat of sweet potatoes which were cooked in big barrels and sold by the vendors outside the gate.

Kunming Lake


Kunming Lake


  Just inside the east gate, I arrived at the impressive 'Hall of Benevolence and Longevity' which houses the hardwood throne. The courtyard in front of this structure is always a favorite of mine since it is fronted by impressive, bronze animals known as the mythical 'qilin', a hybrid animal that was thought to appear on earth only at times of harmony. The 'Hall of Benevolence and Harmony' is where Empress Cixi would receive members of the court from behind a screen and then later from the Dragon Throne. Empress Cixi lived permanently in the Summer Palace from 1888 to end of her life in 1908 and loved the numerous flower gardens throughout the grounds which she replenished often. As I wandered this area, I could visualize Empress Cixi descending from her sedan chair to walk among these flowers, playing with her loved Pekingese pug dogs, smoking her European cigarettes held in cigarette holders and walking, as if on stilts, on her shoes with six-inch-high Manchu soles.

Hall of Benevolence and Longevity


Hall of Benevolence and Longevity


  From this hall, I began my quest to see the Marble Boat by walking along the covered, wooden promenade know as'The Long Corridor' which stretches 700 meters along the shore of Kunming Lake where Empress Cixi enjoyed boating. This walk was very interesting since each crossbeam, ceiling, and pillar of the promenade is painted with a different scene taken from Chinese history, literature, myth or geography with a total of about 10,000 paintings. The corridor was constructed so that Emperor Qianlong's mother could enjoy a walk through the gardens protected from the elements. This famous walkway borders Kunming Lake where I could see many people enjoying boat rides as I wandered along the covered pathway. This lake, which covers and area of 2.2 square kilometers, was entirely man-made with the work of 100,000 laborers on a site which had previously been a smaller area of springs and a water reservoir. The excavated soil from the lake was used to build another feature in the park which I could see in the distance: Longevity Hill. Longevity Hill received its name from Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, who commissioned work on the hill in 1749 and named it in celebration of his mother's 60th birthday.

Long Corridor in the Summer Palace


Long Corridor in the Summer Palace


  At the end of my long walk, along this beautiful long corridor, I found my quest, the site which I had never found on previous trips to the park: the magnificent Marble Boat (Shifang). Contrary to the belief of many, this boat was not originally constructed by Empress Cixi and had its historical origin with Emperor Qianlong who followed the words of Wei Zheng: "The waters that bear the boat are the same that swallow it up". These words meant to compare the relationship between the emperor and his people as that between a boat and waters. In this way, he suggested that the emperor love his people, otherwise, the unsatisfied people would overthrow the emperor's reign. Emperor Qianlong, therefore, had the firm boat made of stone, hoping that the reign of the Qing Dynasty would never be toppled. The marble boat, which is 36 meters long, is not, however, entirely made of marble and has some wood parts which add to the marble texture. The main structure of the Marble Boat was burnt out by the Anglo-French Allied Forces but in 1893 it was rebuilt and later refitted in 1888 in the time of Dowager Cixi in an imitation of western-style yachts using money which some records report that she had diverted from funds meant to go to the Chinese navy. She had received money from the coffers for her birthday celebrations and some of her court had expected to receive lavish presents from these funds but were disappointed when she used the funds for her own enjoyment. The refurbishment of the boat seems actually to be mostly done, officially, by Prince Chun, who had the paddle wheels added to please Empress Cixi and some decorations added to the superstructure, in the late 19th century. The boat however has become, perhaps erroneously, to be known as Empress Cixi's only nautical contribution to the needy navy's request for funds.


  After my long reflection at the sight of the Marble Boat, I walked to the opposite end of the park to see an object which I had seen many times before but always find very intriguing: the big bronze ox which is located near the Seventeen-Arch Bridge.


Seventeen-Arch Bridge


  This bronze ox, which is sometimes referred to as the 'golden ox', was made in 1755, during the reign of Emperor Qianlong, and it is intriguing to me because it is the same size and vividness as a real one, which reflects the extraordinary craftsmanship of its foundry. The ox sits on a bluestone base carved with waves, and looks into the landscape with his head raised and his eyes shining. The inscription engraved on the back of the ox was written by Emperor Qianlong in a traditional style of Chinese calligraphy know as seal characters and is still very clear despite its age. The inscription is comprised of eighty characters, explaining the story of this bronze ox. Emperor Qianlong placed this ox on the bank of the lake in hope that it could prevent potential flooding by Kunming Lake and also to bring infinite blessing to both the gardens of the Summer Palace and to the surrounding area.


  Walking a little further, past this statue, I stopped to appreciate the view of another of my favorite structures in the park: The Seventeen-Arch Bridge which is the only connection to the small South Lake Island (Nan Hou Dao). This bridge was also built during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty. To me, it resembles a rainbow joining the main park to the small island where Empress Cixi would go to 'Dragon King Temple' to ask the temple's statue for rain in times of drought. The bridge is an imitation of the celebrated Marco Polo Bridge (Lugou Bridge) in Fengtai District, Beijing, and it is the largest bridge in the garden, 8 meters wide and 150 meters long with 17 arches. The feature of the bridge, that I always love to examine, are the 544 uniquely carved stone lions which sit on white marble bases. These exquisite lions all have different sizes, shapes, postures and expressions. As the bridge name suggests, the bridge has seventeen symmetrical arches, with the largest one in the center and the others diminishing in size on either side. The arch and its reflection in the water are an awesome sight.


  My day, which started with the fabulous boat trip, was complete and I had re-visited my favorite sites and finally visited, for the first time, the famed Marble Boat. The memories of a day such as this one always reminds me of how lucky I am to live in a city with such remarkable history awaiting discovery and re-discovery.


  For those who do not wish to go on the boat trip by buying the tickets themselves at the boat dock, the China Culture Club offers trips throughout the summer. Participants may board the bus at the China Culture Centre which is located on a side street not far from the Kempinski Hotel or by meeting their group tour at the boat dock. This club also offers many other day-tours and overnight tours throughout the year which are convenient for foreign visitors or residents of Beijing.


  Resourse: Betty's Beijing Blog

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