Notes from the field: the Beijing Summer Palace

Beijing Summer Palace

The Summer Palace (颐和园) was the perfect place to finish my final trip to China this year. No matter how many times I visit this former Qing imperial resort, I never lose my sense of wonder at the sublime beauty of its palaces, pavilions, and lakes.

The Qing emperors and their retinues certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. However, their extravagance – best exemplified by the construction of the notorious marble boat for the Empress Dowager Cixi using funds intended for modernizing the navy – played a major role in the demise of the dynasty around the turn of the twentieth century.

Beijing Summer Palace

Its riches also made the Summer Palace an irresistible target for looting and destruction by British, French, and other western forces at the time of the Second Opium War in 1860 and then again towards the end of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.

I would certainly rank the Summer Palace in the top five of must-see places in Beijing – well ahead of the Fragrant Hills, which I visited yesterday. It takes roughly an hour to get there from the city center, but it’s definitely worth the trip to see how the imperial family and its entourage wiled away their leisure time.

Beijing Summer Palace

The nearby Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as the Yuanming Yuan (圆 明 园), is also worth looking at if time permits. This vast complex was almost completely destroyed by mainly British forces under the orders of Lord Elgin in 1860 after he learned that the delegation he had sent to negotiate with the Qing authorities had been imprisoned and tortured, leading to twenty deaths. All that remains of it are some old ruins that provide only the smallest hints of the palace’s former magnificence – not to mention a silent but stinging rebuke to the evils of British colonialism. 

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