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Awesome Scenic Heyday: Rise & Changes to Imperial Gardens

2016-08-25 13:38:17Share:

  The imperial gardens of Beijing Haidian District have a favorable geographical position: west of the sea, east of Taihang Mountain, south of rivers and north of deserts. Yan Mountain and Taihang Mountan join the northwest of Beijing, forming a protective shield. With beautiful landscape from Haidian to the Western Hills, the western suburb of Beijing is a natural place for gardens.

Imperial Gardens SUMMER PALACE HAIDIAN DISTRICT

 

  Gardens: surrounded by rivers and hills

 

  As one of the Taihang Mountain ranges stretching west of Beijing, the Western Hills resemble the backbone of a dragon, crouching south to north. Looking from the hills northwest of Beijing, the Western Hills belong to the Taihang Mountains, while the Jundu Mountains in the north belong to the Yan Mountains. These two ranges meet at Nankou Guangou in Changping district, forming a half-closed area that stretches southeast commonly known as “Beijing Bay”. Beijing’s mother river the Yongding runs across the Western Hills into a large alluvial plain where the city first arose.

 

  Beijingers are obsessed with the Western Hills. If the Yongding River is like the mother, then the Western Hills are the father to old Beijingers. The Western Hills are inseparable from Beijing. The range meanders like a green screen for the summer. Its snowcapped peaks block the cold northerly winds in winter. The vast plain and gorges do not lack for spring water. Water abounds in all four seasons. By a rough estimate, there are more than 1,200 springs in the Western Hills.

 

  Spring water from the Western Hills flows into the Yu River, Kunming Lake, Chang River and Yuyuantan Lake. Thanks to their location, most gardens in Haidian abound with water.

 

  The first imperial garden was built in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). At that time the most well-known architecture was the Eight Water Courtyards, built during the reign of Emperor Jinzhangzong. Running from Zhuhua Mountain north-south through Jin Mountain to Yangtai Mountain were Shengshuiyuan (Holy Water Courtyard), Xiangshuiyuan (Fragrant Water Courtyard), Jinsuhiyuan (Golden Water Courtyard), Qingshuiyuan (Clear Water Courtyard), Tanshuiyua (Pool Water Courtyard), Quanshuiyuan (Spring Water Courtyard), Shuangshuiyuan (Double Water Courtyard) and Lingshuiyuan (Spiritual Water Courtyard).

 

  The most typical Chinese imperial gardens were built over several hundred years during the Qing Dynasty. The building of Qingyi Garden (Clear Rippling Garden) in Wanshou Mountain, Jingyi Garden (Quiet and Pleasant Garden) in the Fragrant Hills, Jingming Garden (Quiet and Bright Garden), Changchun Garden (Spring Garden) and the Old Summer Palace in Yuquan Mountain opened a new chapter in ancient imperial garden architecture.

Imperial Gardens SUMMER PALACE HAIDIAN DISTRICT

 

  Imperial Gardens: scroll painting

 

  During summer, Beijing became hot, humid and unbearable. Unlike urban areas, the Western Hills abounded with water, trees and grass all at a higher altitude and lower temperature, making them ideal for imperial residences. From minister to emperor, all decided to build residences in the Western Hills.

 

  At the outset of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchurian rulers could not adjust to the stern, cloistered Forbidden City. To their eyes, the grand and splendid Forbidden City contained small closed areas, quite unlike the vast mountains and forests of their homeland in northeast China. During summer, Beijing became hot, humid and unbearable. Unlike urban areas, the Western Hills abounded with water, trees and grass all at a higher altitude and lower temperature, making them ideal for imperial residences. From minister to emperor, all decided to build residences in the Western Hills. Emperor Shunzhi had gardens built in Yuquan Mountain, marking the first chapter of the Imperial Gardens.

 

  During the reign of Emperor Kangxi, the Fragrant Hill Palace was built around Xiangshan Temple. In the 19th year of Kangxi’s reign (1680), he built another palace, Chengxin Garden, on Yuquan Mountain, later renamed Jingming Garden. As it’s quite hilly about Yuquan Mountain, there was a limited area to expand the palace. So in the 23rd year of Kangxi’s reign, he had Changchu Garden built: a new, large garden akin to a South Chinese garden style with a detached palace in the suburbs far from the summer heat. After completion, the emperor spent half his time there. Family members followed suit and a smattering of small gardens were built for the sons around Changchun Garden. Changchun Garden became a place from which Qing Dynasty emperors issued daily edicts. During Kangxi’s reign, many incidents of national importance took place in this garden. Kangxi himself even died in the garden in 1722, the 61st year of his reign.

Imperial Gardens SUMMER PALACE HAIDIAN DISTRICT

 

  When the next emperor took power, he neither moved in nor expanded the garden palace. Instead Emperor Yongzheng had the building renovated into a residence for the Empress Dowager. In the third year of his rule (1725), Yongzheng expanded the then-Summer Palace, previously the residence of the emperors’ sons, into his imperial garden. This shifted the imperial court’s focus to what is now called the Old Summer Palace. About 80 percent of the then-Summer Palace was built during Emperor Yongzheng’s reign.

 

  During the reign of Emperor Qianlong, the imperial gardens underwent large-scale integration and expansion. In the 10th year of his reign (1745), Qianlong expanded the Fragrant Hill Palace and renamed it Jingyi Garden. At that time, there were four large, barely connected imperial gardens in Beijing’s western suburbs, each with an open area between them. Emperor Qianlong spent 4.48 million tael (about 40 grams each) of silver reconstructing these gardens into Qingyi Garden, a 20-kilometer-long imperial garden from Tsinghua Garden to the Fragrant Hills.

 

  Emperor Qianlong later built Changchun Garden and Yichun Garden based on the Old Summer Palace. In the latter part of Qianlong’s rule, another two gardens, Xichun and Chunxi, were added to form a cluster of five neighboring imperial gardens known as the Five Yuanming Gardens.

 

  Instead of a grand, expensive renovation of the then-Summer Palace, Emperor Jiaqing, under budgetary pressure expanded Yichun Garden, a small garden built in Qianlong’s reign. As Emperor Jiaqing’s residence, this garden reached its peak in the 19th year of his reign (1814).

 

  When Emperor Daoguang succeeded Jiaqing, the government didn’t have the budget to protect the gardens from Qing Dynasty decline. The emperor no longer went to visit Qingyi, Jingmin and Jingyi gardens, laying off officials and staff. Apart from the Old Summer Palace, the other gardens were all left unused and suffered some natural damage as time went by.

 

  Emperor Xianfeng resumed imperial visits to the imperial gardens by occasionally visiting some lakes, climbing hills and attending military parades which were no longer systematic events. The damaged gardens were not renovated. Some were even demolished for the old building materials to repair other gardens at the Old Summer Palace.

 

  In 1860 during Emperor Xianfeng’s reign, an Anglo-French Alliance invaded, looted and burnt down the Summer Palace, looting the imperial gardens. After the alliance left, the emperor had to return to the Forbidden City. Those half-ruined gardens that belonged to officials and aristocrats were left damaged and unused as their owners too returned to court.

 

  Gardens that stretched for dozens of kilometers, once dotted with pavilions and filled with horses and carriages, became bleak wastelands without a trace of human life.

Imperial Gardens SUMMER PALACE HAIDIAN DISTRICT

 

  Gardens: damaged in war

 

  During Emperor Tongzhi’s reign, Empress Dowager Cixi and the emperor decided to rebuild the Summer Palace as they found themselves stuck in the Forbidden City and missed the comfortable lifestyle of the imperial gardens. The main focus of rebuilding included the Fair and Square Hall and Diligence Hall where the emperor handled national affairs and the imperial ancestral temple and sleepover palaces for empresses Cian and Cixi. The renovation had to be aborted due to the tight budget and a lack of building materials.

 

  Emperor Qianlong later built Changchun Garden and Yichun Garden based on the Old Summer Palace. In the latter part of Qianlong’s rule, another two gardens, Xichun and Chunxi, were added to form a cluster of five neighboring imperial gardens known as the Five Yuanming Gardens.

 

  Unwilling to accept this and despite a weak country with difficult finances, Empress Dowager Cixi insisted on building a new imperial garden on the remains of Qingyi Garden. The project started in the 12th year of Emperor Guangxu (1886) and began to take shape two years later. It was officially named the Summer Palace. All architecture was completed in the 21st year of Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1895).

 

  The newly built Summer Palace basically retained the original essence and features of Qingyi Garden, yet had some different aspects for various reasons: Mixulingjing, Jingming Building, Farming & Weaving Painting Scenic Area and Huacheng building complex were left untouched due to lack of funding. The garden functioned as a palace and imperial garden where Empress Dowager Cixi held court from behind a screen. Between the 26th year of Emperor Guangxu (1900) and the next year, the Summer Palace was seized, looted and ruined by the Eight-Nation Alliance. In the last few years of the Qing Dynasty, the government doled out imperial gardens under the management of the Ministry of Internal Order to ministers and officials as private property. After that, imperial gardens vanished forever.

 

  Following the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China was founded. In 1924, military coup leader Feng Yuxiang expelled the last emperor Puyi. All the imperial gardens became state assets as the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace and Jingming Garden were seized by the government.

Imperial Gardens SUMMER PALACE HAIDIAN DISTRICT