CHENGDE (承德, chéngdé), a country town 250km northeast of Beijing, sits in a river basin on the west bank of the Wulie River, surrounded by the Yunshan mountain range. It’s a quiet, unimportant place, rather bland in appearance, but on its outskirts are some of the most magnificent examples of imperial architecture in China, remnants from its glory days as the summer retreat of the Manchu emperors. Gorgeous temples punctuate the cabbage fields around town, and a palace-and-park hill complex, Bishu Shanzhuang, covers an area nearly as large as the town itself. In recent years Chengde has once more become a summer haven, justly popular with weekending Beijingers escaping the capital.
Originally called “Rehe”, the town was discovered by the Qing-dynasty emperor Kangxi at the end of the seventeenth century, while marching his troops to the Mulan hunting range to the north. He was attracted to the cool summer climate and the rugged landscape, and built small lodges here from which he could indulge in a fantasy Manchu lifestyle, hunting and hiking like his northern ancestors. The building programme expanded when it became diplomatically useful to spend time north of Beijing, forging closer links with the troublesome Mongol tribes. Chengde was a thoroughly pragmatic creation, devised as an effective means of defending the empire by overawing Mongol princes with splendid audiences, hunting parties and impressive military manoeuvres.
Construction of the first palaces started in 1703. By 1711 there were 36 palaces, temples, monasteries and pagodas set in a great walled park, its ornamental pools and islands dotted with beautiful pavilions and linked by bridges. Craftsmen from all parts of China were invited to work on the project; Kangxi’s grandson, Qianlong (1736–96), added another 36 imperial buildings during his reign, which was considered to be the heyday of Chengde.
In 1786, the Panchen Lama was summoned from Tibet by Qianlong for his birthday celebrations. This was an adroit political move to impress the followers of Lamaist Buddhism. The Buddhists included a number of minority groups who were prominent thorns in the emperor’s side, such as Tibetans, Mongols, Torguts, Eleuths, Djungars and Kalmucks. Some accounts (notably not Chinese) tell how Qianlong invited the Panchen Lama to sit with him on the Dragon Throne, which was taken to Chengde for the summer season. He was certainly feted with honours and bestowed with costly gifts and titles, but the greatest impression on him and his followers must have been made by the replicas of the Potala and of his own palace, constructed at Chengde to make him feel at home – a munificent gesture, and one that would not have been lost on the Lamaists. However, the Panchen Lama’s visit ended questionably when he succumbed to smallpox, or possibly poison, in Beijing and his coffin was returned to Tibet with a stupendous funeral cortege.
The first British Embassy to China, under Lord Macartney, visited Qianlong’s court in 1793. Having sailed up the river to Beijing in a ship whose sails were painted with characters reading “Tribute bearers from the vassal king of England”, they were somewhat disgruntled to discover that the emperor had decamped to Chengde for the summer. However, they made the 150km journey there, in impractical European carriages, where they were well received by the emperor, though the visit was hardly a success. Macartney caused an initial stir by refusing to kowtow, while Qianlong was disappointed with the gifts the British had brought and, with Manchu power at its height, rebuffed all British trade demands, remarking: “We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” His letter to the British monarch concluded, magnificently, “O king, Tremblingly Obey and Show No Negligence!”
Chengde gradually lost imperial popularity when it came to be seen as unlucky after emperors Jiaqing and Xianfeng died here in 1820 and 1860 respectively. The buildings were left empty and neglected for most of the twentieth century, but largely escaped the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Restoration, in the interests of tourism, began in the 1980s and is ongoing.