What is the Summer Palace?

Brendan McGuigan

The Summer Palace is a large Imperial palace in Beijing, China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1998. The grounds of the Summer Palace cover roughly 720 acres, or just over a square mile (2.9 sq. km).

Part of the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace was a retreat from the Forbidden City for the Imperial family.
Part of the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace was a retreat from the Forbidden City for the Imperial family.

The Summer Palace was constructed in the mid-18th century, and at that point was known as the Garden of Clear Ripples. The Summer Palace makes use of traditional Chinese gardening techniques, using various ponds, paths, and rocks mixed in with the flora to create a unique garden style.

A map of China.
A map of China.

The majority of the area of the Summer Palace is covered by the Kunming Lake. This lake was created by the original architects of the Summer Palace to recreate the West Lake in Hangzhou. The earth excavated to make the Kunming Lake was piled up to build Longevity Hill, a 200 foot (60m) earth structure. More than 100,000 laborers worked on the construction of the Summer Palace and the excavation of Kunming Lake.

The name of the Summer Palace comes from the fact that it was later used by the Imperial family as a summer retreat from the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace was attacked when the British and French attacked Beijing in 1860, and was again attacked during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In both cases the Summer Palace was rebuilt soon after, to much the same specifications as the previous structure, although with new additions each time.

The first time, the funds for the restoration of the Summer Palace, undertaken by the Dowager Empress CiXi, was financed by money originally intended to fund the Chinese navy. It was after this restoration that the Summer Palace became the new summer home for the Imperial family. CiXi poured an incredible amount of money into her newly-imagined palace, and the grounds became a symbol of Imperial excess. Some relics from that era, including the infamous Marble Boat, remain in the Summer Palace and can be viewed by visitors.

In 1911, following the revolution of that year, the Summer Palace was made open to the public for viewing. In 1924 the Summer Palace was officially turned into a park, and since then has been a popular attraction for both Chinese and foreign visitors.

The Summer Palace is considered by many to be one of the top tourist attractions in China, behind only the Forbidden City and the Great wall of China. The grounds are quite open, and can be freely explored in a number of different ways. One of the most popular is by paddle boat, which can be rented along the lake and taken anywhere on the lake. The grounds feature a strong tourist infrastructure as well, with gift shops, restaurants, and information points. Reaching the Summer Palace is a simple matter of hiring a taxi to drive to the outskirts of Beijing.

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