Yiheyuan, the Summer Palace (颐和园, yíhéyuán), is certainly worth the effort to seek out. This is one of the loveliest spots in Beijing, a vast public park where the latter-day imperial court would decamp during the hottest months of the year. The site is perfect, surrounded by hills, cooled by the lake (which takes up two-thirds of the park’s area) and sheltered by garden landscaping. The impressive temples and pleasure houses are spread out along the lakeside and connected by a suitably majestic gallery.
There have been summer imperial pavilions at Yiheyuan since the eleventh century, although the present layout is essentially eighteenth-century, created by the Manchu emperor Qianlong. However, the key character associated with the palace is the Empress Dowager Cixi – Yiheyuan was very much her pleasure ground. She rebuilt the palaces in 1888 and determinedly restored them in 1902 after foreign troops had ransacked them. Her ultimate flight of fancy was the construction of a magnificent marble boat from the very funds intended for the Chinese navy. Whether her misappropriations had any real effect on the empire’s path is hard to determine, but it certainly speeded the decline, with China suffering heavy naval defeats during the war with Japan. To enjoy the site, however, you need know very little of its history – like Beihai, the park, its lake and pavilions form a startling visual array, like a traditional landscape painting brought to life.
The palaces are built to the north of the lake, on and around Wanshou Shan (Longevity Hill), and many remain intimately linked with Cixi – anecdotes about whom are staple fare for the numerous guides. Most visitors enter through the East Gate, where the buses stop, above which is the main palace compound, including the Renshoudian (Hall of Benevolence and Longevity), a majestic hall where the empress and her predecessors gave audience. It contains much of the original nineteenth-century furniture, including an imposing throne. Beyond, to the right, is the Deheyuan (Palace of Virtue and Harmony), dominated by a three-storey theatre, complete with trap doors for the appearances and disappearances of the actors. Theatre was one of Cixi’s main passions and she sometimes took part in performances, dressed as Guanyin, the goddess of mercy. The next major building along the path is the Yulantang (Jade Waves Palace). This is where the child emperor Guangxu was kept in captivity for ten years, while Cixi exercised his powers. Just to the west is the dowager’s own principal residence, the Leshoutang (Hall of Joy and Longevity), which houses Cixi’s hardwood throne, and the table where she took her notorious 108-course meals. The chandeliers were China’s first electric lights, installed in 1903 and powered by the palace’s own generator.
From here to the northwest corner of the lake runs the Long Gallery, the 900m-long covered way, painted with mythological scenes and flanked by various temples and pavilions. It is said that no pair of lovers can walk through without emerging betrothed. Near the west end of the gallery is the infamous marble boat, completed by Cixi with purloined naval cash and regarded by her acolytes as a suitably witty and defiant gesture. Close by, and the tourist focus of this site, is a jetty with rowing boats for rent. You can dock again below Wanshou Shan and row out to the two bridges – the Jade Belt on the western side and Seventeen Arched on the east. In winter, the Chinese skate on the lake here, an equally spectacular sight, and skates are available for rent.
Empress Dowager Cixi
Empress Dowager Cixi
The notorioius Cixi entered the imperial palace at 15 as Emperor Xianfeng’s concubine, quickly becoming his favourite and bearing him a son. When the emperor died in 1861, she became regent, ruling in place of her infant boy. For the next 25 years, she in effect ruled China, displaying a mastery of intrigue and court politics. When her son died of syphilis, she installed her nephew as puppet regent, imprisoned him, and retained her authority. Her fondness of extravagant gestures (every year she had ten thousand caged birds released on her birthday) drained the state’s coffers, and her deeply conservative policies were inappropriate for a time when the nation was calling out for reform.
With foreign powers taking great chunks out of China’s borders on and off during the nineteenth century, Cixi was moved to respond in a typically misguided fashion. Impressed by the claims of the xenophobic Boxer Movement (whose Chinese title translated as “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”), Cixi let them loose on all the foreigners in China in 1899. The Boxers laid seige to the foreign legation’s compound in Beijing for nearly two months before a European expeditionary force arrived and, predictably, slaughtered the agitators. Cixi and the emperor escaped the subsequent rout of the capital by disguising themselves as peasants and fleeing the city. On her return, Cixi clung to power, attempting to delay the inevitable fall of her dynasty. One of her last acts, before she died in 1908, was to arrange for the murder of her puppet regent.