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The Summer Palace, one of the finest examples garden architecture in China, is located in the northwest suburbs of Beijing. The 100-odd examples of traditional architecture in the park include pavilions, terraces, temples, pagodas, waterside gazebos, covered corridors, stone bridges and the famous marble boat. The palace occupies a total area of 290 hectares, three quarters of which is made up of shallow lakes.
The history of the Summer Palace dates back some 800 years when the first emperor of the Jin Dynasty, Wan Yanliang, moved his capital to the vicinity of Beijing and built his "God Mountain Palace" at the present site of Longevity Hill. A subsequent emperor of the same dynasty diverted the water from the nearby Jade Spring to the Gold Mountain, naming the lake it flowed into the Gold Sea. After the founding of the Yuan Dynasty, Gold Mountain was renamed Jug Mountain (Wengshan), as explained in the following legend: There was once an itinerant old man who discovered a large rock on the slope of Gold Mountain. Breaking it open, he found an earthenware jar hidden inside. The jar's surface was exquisitely carved with flowers, animals and dragons. Inside the jar were many objects of great value which the old man took away with him. Before his departure, however, he brought the jar to the sunny side of the mountain and inscribed it with the following couplet: "When this earthen jar is moved, the emperor's decline shall begin." During the Jiajing period (1522-1566) of the Ming Dynasty, the jar disappeared and, just as the old man predicted, the dynasty fell into decay.
In 1292, Guo Shoujing, a Yuan official in charge of irrigation work, suggested digging a riverbed leading all the springs in the vicinity of Jug Mountain to facilitate grain transport. Spring water from Changping, 50 kilometers north of Beijing, was thus led to the foot of Jug Mountain, and the lake was enlarged and renamed Jug Mountain Lake.
The names of the lake and the park and how they have changed over the course of their long history would make a study in itself. In the Yuan Dynasty, Kunming Lake was known as the Big Lake, the West Sea or the West Lake. Visiting West Lake in April was already a popular custom among the people in this period. In the Ming Dynasty a temple was built on the south side of Longevity Hill.
Emperor Zhengde of the Ming (reigned 1506-1521) built a palace on the bank of the lake and called it the Fine Garden for Enjoying Mountains (Haoshanyuan). He also changed Jug Mountain's name back to Gold Mountain and Jug Mountain Lake to Gold Sea. In the early 17th century, the infamous eunuch Zhongxian took over the entire garden for his private use.
When Qing troops occupied Beijing in the middle of the 17th century, the Fine Garden for Enjoying Mountains was renamed Jug Mountain Palace. It was during the reign of Qianlong (1736-1796) that the names of the last time. In commemoration of the 60th birthday of Qianlong's mother, the emperor erected the Temple of Gratitude and Longevity Hill and, following the example of the Han Dynasty Emperor Wu Di who had conducted Kunming Lake naval exercises in the Han capital of Chang' an many centuries before, the Gold Sea was renamed Kunming Lake. At the same, the entire area was called the Park pf Pure Ripples (Qingyiyuan).
The Summer Palace has fallen prey to two acts of destruction. The first took place in 1860 when the Anglo-French forces invaded Beijing and ravaged both the Yuanmingyuan Garden and the Park of Pure Ripples. Every single building in the park was destroyed by fire except nonflammable structures such as bronze pavilions and stone pagodas.
In 1888, Empress Dowager Cixi diverted 30 million taels of silver originally designated for the Chinese navy into the reconstruction and enlargement of the Summer Palace. She had the southern side of Longevity Hill laid out in imitation of West Lake in Hangzhou and the northern face in the architectural style of Suzhou. She gave the park its present name: Yiheyuan (Garden of Good Health and Harmony), known generally in English as the Summer Palace.
The second great act of destruction took place in 1900 when the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing. The great temples rebuilt in the 1880s were completely demolished and almost every valuable object in sight stolen by the invading troops. In 1902, when Empress Dawager Cixi returned to Beijing from Xi' an, she ordered the reconstruction of the park. According to historical records, she "rebuilt the Summer Palace with unbounded extravagance and opulence, spending some 40,000 taels of silver per day. Singing and dancing went on without end."
After the Revolution of 1911, the Summer Palace became the private property of the deposed Emperor Puyi, who in 1914 opened the garden to the public. The entrance fee was so high that the palace had very few visitors. In 1924, Puyi was forced to leave the Forbidden City by the "Christian" General Feng Yuxiang, and the Beijing government turned the Summer palace once again fell prey to full-scale devastation; pavilions and covered corridors were destroyed, lakes became silted up, vegetation withered and died, and antiques and other objects of value were lost.
Today, older Beijing residents can still recall some of the palace's former treasures: the statue of the Goddess of Mercy and the watermelon made of kingfisher jade ( feicui ), the huge jade disc ( bi ) which "could be traded for several cities," the pearl that glowed at night, and the pearl-embroidered shoes. When the Kuomintang troops fled the mainland, they absconded with these and other treasures, some of which ended up in Taiwan, while he remainder was bought up by museums and private collectors in state of total dilapidation. After the founding of the People' s Republic in 1949, local authorities began the painstaking task of restoration. Today, after more than 40 years of repainting and reconstruction, the Summer Palace plays host to approximately 2 million visitors per year.
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