Beijing’s Summer Palace is vast. Extraordinary, tranquil and vast. Built to reflect the grandeur of China’s Imperial dynasties, even today it has the power to take your breath away. The Imperial family would retreat here to relax and entertain away from the city, you can see why. The beautifully gardens were labelled a “masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design” by UNESCO, when they placed the Summer Palace on the World Heritage List in 1998. Even a short stroll will have you nodding in agreement.
The ‘modern’ Summer Palace, or Yiheyuan as it is known, shouldn’t be confused with the ‘old’ Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan. This palace and gardens was once known as “China’s Versailles” by Europeans, which doesn’t help explain why the British and French felt it necessary to burn the entire thing to the ground during the Second Opium War (1856-60). European imperial expansion was steamrolling its way around the globe and China’s Quing dynasty was firmly in the sights of the British and French.
The First Opium War (1839-42) started when the Chinese, not unreasonably, decided to stop the British turning the entire Chinese nation into opium addicts. Chinese authorities seized 1.2 million kilos of opium from British traders, putting modern-day drug hauls into context. This act led to British retaliation. The end result was never in doubt, Chinese defeat was recognised at the Treaty of Nanking, the British gained trading concessions and control of Hong Kong. The opium started to flow once again.
Colonialism has many low points, but waging a war so you can turn millions of people into junkies must be one of the lowest. Perhaps this is what British Education Minister, Michael Gove, has in mind when he dementedly talks about British schools teaching “British values”? Mind you, he’s someone who believes colonialism only brought benefits to the colonised. Lovely man.
European’s were never satisfied and it took only a few years before the Treaty of Nanking collapsed; an Anglo-French force marched north of Beijing and utterly destroyed the ‘old’ Summer Palace. An act of cultural vandalism up there with the Sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The destruction was overseen by the Earl of Elgin ostensibly to make the Chinese Imperial Court “see reason”. Charming man Elgin, he fathered three illegitimate children with his Chinese concubine in-between the bloodshed.
The current Summer Palace was originally named the ‘Garden of Clear Ripples’, presumably because of the huge Kunming Lake which forms the park’s majestic centrepiece. The majority of the site dates from the 18th Century, the creation of Manchu Emperor Qianlong, and it is a wondrous place. It takes a bit of effort to reach it from the centre of town and this is not a place to try to rush.
I arrived early to avoid the crowds, and found myself strolling with very few others around the lake, a walk that was constantly throwing up weird and wonderful sights. Underneath a tree by a bridge I came across several couples dancing to music played on a record payer. Elsewhere, people were dancing with ribbons, an exceptionally elegant form of exercise. On the truly beautiful Seventeen Arched Bridge people flew kites, and everywhere I went there were magnificent views over the lake towards the palace buildings on a hillside to the north.