History of the Summer Palace
The Summer Palace has a history of over 850 years - an imperial garden has existed here since 1150.
Early in the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234), an imperial palace named 'Golden Hill Palace' was built on the present site of the Summer Palace.
The history of the gardens at the New Summer Palace dates back to the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. To improve Beijing's water supply, he ordered the construction of canals transporting water from the Western Hills to an enlarged lake, now known as the Summer Palace's Kunming Lake. This lake was to serve as a reservoir for Beijing - a function that it still performs today.
In 1750, the 15th year of his reign, Emperor Qian Long of the Qing dynasty built the 'Garden of Clear Ripples' here and renamed the hill 'Longevity Hill' to celebrate his mother's birthday at a cost of 4.48 million taels of silver. Artisans reproduced the garden architecture styles of various palaces in China. Kunming Lake was enlarged in order to imitate the West Lake in Hangzhou.
In 1860, the Anglo-French Allied Forces invaded Beijing and set fire to many of the buildings within the garden.
In 1886, Dowager Empress CiXi, with 30 million taels of silver embezzled from the Imperial Navy (BeiYang Fleet), restored the grand garden. The reconstruction and enlargement lasted for ten years and after completion she renamed it 'YiHeYuan' - 'Garden of Peace and Harmony' (or 'Garden of Nurtured Harmony' or 'Garden of Good Health and Harmony').
It is said that in an effort to curry favour with the Dowager Empress Cixi, her brother in law, after being appointed head of the navy, used money earmarked for new warships to build her a New Summer Palace. The Empress Dowager was thrilled by her present. The Chinese navy, on the other hand, was routed by a smaller Japanese fleet in the Sino-Japanese war of 1895.
The Empress Dowager, who abhorred all challenges to her position, moved her administration to the new Summer Palace in 1889. Tales of her excesses are legion: the kitchens comprised of eight courtyards, there were 128 eunuch cooks employed in her palace, five million silver taels were spent on her sixtieth birthday party, etc. And certainly when you consider that all 290 hectares of the summer palace were for the Dowager's exclusive use, you begin to see how the 'New Summer Palace' came to symbolise the decadence of a royal dynasty.
The Summer Palace is sometimes referred to as 'The New Summer Palace'. This draws the question - what happened to the old one? This was demolished in 1860 by Anglo-French forces. And as if once were not enough, the eight allied powers returned in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion to plunder and destroy the newly reconstructed New Summer Palace. This time, nearly all big temples and halls at the back of the Longevity Hill were destroyed and only one survived. Only when the fugitive Cixi returned to Beijing in 1903, did full-scale restoration begin. In this way the Summer Palaces - new and old - are also associated in popular culture with the destructive interference of foreigners.
The Summer Palace of today is more or less the same as the palace rebuilt in 1903. After the success of the 1911 Revolution, it was opened to the public. Then, after the last Qing Emperor PuYi was thrown out of the Palaces in 1924, this garden was turned into a park. At first, the admission charge was very high so normal people still had no chance to view the magnificent royal garden. Today, however, most people can afford the entrance ticket.
This old imperial garden is now an ideal place for Beijing locals to visit and relax, together with both domestic and international tourists. In 1960 it was designated by the State Council as a Key Cultural Relics Protection Site of China.
The Summer Palace was designated a world heritage site in 1990 by UNESCO. Their website states that "the natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value". In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List. It declared the Summer Palace an "outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole".