Trips and Tales: Part 137
If you think you are getting lost, you are probably close #8
SD‘s tale of her time spent in Beijing has reached its conclusion, but a couple of interesting appendices remain: her photographs – some of which I hope to feature soon, and her experience of one memorable location that stood out as an oasis of calm against the general bustle: The Summer Palace, which we have suggested is one of the top five sights of Beijing.
Having spoken to her I didn’t realise the full extent of the site itself – over 700 acres of palace buildings, lakes and greenery. Water takes precedence however; in spite of the sheer scale of the location, only one quarter is land, the rest divided into several lakes and canals.
The development of the site itself commenced approximately 800 years ago when the Jin Dynasty’s first Emperor, Wan Yanliang had God (or Gold) Mountain Palace constructed on Beijing’s (now renamed) Longevity hill. This act of establishing a seat on ‘God Mountain’ constituted part of his re-siting of the Chinese capital to the region. The renaming to ‘Longevity’ (1752) incidentally, was an honour bestowed upon the mother of the Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Emperor, by her royal son, to mark her 60th birthday. Whilst not a particularly big number by modern first-world standards, this perhaps gives a hint as to ancient Chinese life-expectancies – and even their regard for the ‘elderly’ too.
The volumes of water present gave the grounds the title “Garden of Clear Ripples” (1750), and subsequent landscaping and development has shaped them over time, through potentially devastating events such as the Anglo-French Invasion (1860) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900) – both of which impacted upon the gardens themselves. Surviving these outrages, they saw an expansion under the Empress Dowager Cixi – who it’s said diverted Navy funds to enlarge the Palace and its grounds! Not great timing, as a mere six years later China would enter (and lose) the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). The Gardens survive today under the name Yihe Yuan (Garden of Nurtured Harmony or Garden for Maintaining Health) and remain an attractive and peaceful destination for locals and tourist alike.
UNESCO has included the Palace on its World Heritage List and declares it: “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. 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.” Hopefully, it will remain a piece of China’s ‘old’ that it will not seek to modernise – that is, one of the enduring elements of China that modernisation will not erase as we’ve discussed in a previous post.
The structures within the Palace evoke a a sense of history and culture that no amount of concrete could replace: the Temple of Buddhist Virtue, The Cloud-Dispelling Hall and the Sea of Wisdom Temple. Witnessing all three structures allows us to enter a mindset far removed from the chaos of the modern city, as SD relates. “I spent half a day there and still didn’t get round it all,” she tells me. “It’s absolutely massive, with temples everywhere. There are ponds, lakes, rivers, steep hills and stairs”. She remarks on the “Grand coloured-tiled roofs” and the sculpted “Zodiac animals and figures” – features that are both exciting in their use and depiction, whilst paradoxically contributing to a pervading sense of atmosphere and calm. “Unlike the Forbidden City, you can find a quiet corner,” she tells me.
SD also notes that in keeping with that other notable landmark, certain policies perpetuate: closed off interiors here, forbidden (no pun intended) photography there – particularly frustrating when faced with some amazing sculpted furniture she witnessed. But nonetheless, in summary: it’s amazing.