With its magnificent buildings, fascinating scenery and attractive history, the Summer Palace is a wonderful place to explore. As long ago as the Yuan dynasty, officials set up their private gardens in the scenic area, but the Summer Palace didn't take on its present appearance until the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty. He deepened the park's manmade lake and added buildings to serve as a "country home" for his mother, though it would be the Empress Dowager Cixi who would have the biggest impact on the palace's appearance. During the Second Opium War in 1860, the Summer Palace was looted and partially destroyed by French and British forces. In 1886, Cixi diverted funds to build a modern Chinese navy and spent the money on endowing the Summer Palace with a marble boat-shaped pavilion and other extravagances throughout the palace. She also gave the palace its current name, which means the "Garden for Cultivating Harmony," an ill-fitting name as the Summer Palace would inspire little harmony. China soon paid for her imperial lavishness when a modern Japanese fleet destroyed its navy in 1895.
In 1900, Western armies again inharmoniously sacked the Summer Palace, this time in retaliation for the Boxer Rebellion. Undeterred, Cixi again rebuilt this pleasure dome which had become her fulltime residence. She died in 1908, but the imprint of this cunning and powerful woman, who ruled China from behind the scenes for years, remains very strong on the buildings today.
Most of the major sights are concentrated in the northern part of the compound. Near the East Palace Gate, the entry point for most tourists is the Hall of Benevolent Longevity, where Cixi held court on her hardwood throne. A short walk away, on the shore of Kunming Lake, is the Hall of Jade Ripples where Emperor Guangxu, Cixi's nephew, was held under house arrest on Cixi's orders for daring to undermine her authority. The Hall for Cultivating Happiness is the name of Cixi's delightful private theatre that was built for her 60th birthday. Nearby is a display that includes a Mercedes Benz, the first car imported into China. The Empress Dowager lived in the Hall of Happiness and Longevity, which is decorated with many period pieces.
These private apartments open up to the most arresting construction in the Summer Palace, the Long Corridor. More than 700m long and ending at the Marble Boat, this shaded walkway is decorated with some 10,000 painted scenes, each one different. Paths lead off from the Long Corridor to the temple complex atop Longevity Hill, which includes the Buddhist Incense Tower and the tiled Temple of the Sea of Wisdom. Sweeping views of the Summer Palace and the Fragrant Hills can be seen on the climb.
The vast Summer Palace compound centres itself on Kunming Lake. In summer, visitors can explore the lake on boat, and skate across its frozen expanse in the winter. The highly photogenic 17 Arch Bridge links the lake's eastern shore to South Lake Island. The most pleasurable way to escape the crowds is to take a leisurely stroll on the willow-shaded paths and arched bridges that encircle the lake - bring your camera and a picnic.