“First built in 1750, the Summer Palace in Beijing was severely damaged during the flames of war in 1860. The original site was renovated in 1886. The Summer Palace incorporated artificial landscapes like pavilions, corridors, palaces, temples, and bridges with natural mountains and wide lakes into an organic whole harmoniously and aesthetically environment. It could be called a masterpiece within the Chinese landscape designs.” UNESCO made the above comments when they included the Summer Palace in Beijing in its World Heritage List in 1998.
The Summer Palace, originally named 'Qingyi Yuan’ or the 'Garden of Clear Ripples’, was built at the base of the Western Hills of Beijing and served as a temporary palace and garden for the Empresses during the Qing Dynasty. It is known as the last of the famous “Three Hills and Five Gardens” (Longevity Hill, Jade Spring Mountain, and Fragrant Hill; Garden of Clear Ripples, Garden of Everlasting Spring, Garden of Perfection and Brightness, Garden of Tranquility and Brightness, and Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure). The Summer Palace, covering an area of 2.97 square kilometers, was mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, three quarters of which is under water. With more than 3,000 palace and garden architectures of various forms and more than 100 separate landscapes, the Summer Palace can be generally divided into five areas: the Imperial Residence Scenic Area, Kunming Lake Scenic Area, Longevity Hill - Front Hill Scenic Area, Longevity Hill Scenic Area, and Longevity Hill - Rear Hill Scenic Area.
The Imperial Residence Scenic Area is within the East Palace Gate of Summer Palace, and the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity is at its center. The Hall of Benevolence and Longevity served as the place where emperors, during the Qing Dynasty, handled the state and foreign affairs; the Hall of Happiness and Longevity served as the living quarters for Empress Dowager Cixi; the Hall of Jade Ripples served as the living place for Emperor Guangxu; and the Grand Opera Tower in the Hall of Virtue and Harmony played an important role in the formation and development of the art of the Chinese Peking Opera.
The Kunming Lake Scenic Area is the largest scenic area at the Summer Palace, and has three islands symbolizing fairylands Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou whose layouts reflect the Chinese traditional pattern of “One Pool and Three Hills.” To the east of Kunming Lake lies the East Bank, where there is the Kunlun Stone Tablet, Kuoru Pavilion, Bronze Ox, etc., and the Seventeen-Arch Bridge crosses over part of Kunming Lake elegantly. The bridge provides a shortcut to South Lake Island, which is the largest among the three islands. To the west of Kunming Lake lies the West Bank, with rows upon rows of willow trees and six arch bridges designed with different styles.
Longevity Hill - Front Hill Scenic Area adopts the Pavilion of the Buddhist Incense as center, creating a group of gradual upward architectures at an enormous scale and with extraordinary momentum. When you start your walk from the corridor lying on the lakeside, you will gradually go upward from the Glowing Clouds and Holy Land Archway, and then go straight to the Pavilion of the Buddhist Incense, passing through the Hall of Dispelling Clouds (Paiyundian), and then the Hall of Moral Glory (Dehuidian). The highest “Sea of Wisdom” Temple is situated on the very top of Longevity Hill. With the majestic momentum and strict symmetry, the whole group of architectures on the central axis becomes the model of landscape gardening among the imperial gardens.
Longevity Hill Scenic Area is composed of several groups of architectures scattering at the west of the Pavilion of the Buddhist Incense, and serves as a mighty foil for architectures on the central axis. The Qingyan Stone Boat is a motionless boat made of marble, but its cabin has been transformed into a western-style architecture from the Chinese style; the location of the Grand Opera Tower in the Hall for Listening to Orioles has been changed to face north from facing south; the “Strolling Through a Picture Scroll” is composed of three pavilions, two towers, one room, and one archway. All architectures connect with each other with sloping galleries; you will feel you are taking a tour in a painting because the scenery changes as you walk.
Longevity Hill - Rear Hill Scenic Area has its own distinct characteristics. Its main scenic spots are the architectures of four great regions on the central axis of the rear hill. With Grand Red Houses and Lama Towers, incorporated the Sino-Tibetan architectural style, the Four Great Regions were planned to be built based on the understanding of the world by Buddhist Scriptures; Suzhou Street is within the North Palace Gate and is a place with an architectural complex modeled after the Jiangnan Watertown market. It takes the Houxi River as its main line. It becomes the only one among the different existing palace markets with its layout of “One River and Two Streets”; the Garden of Harmonious Interests lies at the northeast corner of the Summer Palace, and is a garden in gardens depicting the Jiangnan design style.