ZIO MWALE, Beijing
WITH a civilisation spanning over five millennia, China has a lot to offer in terms of history and culture.
The Chinese capital, Beijing, which was established 800 years ago, is littered with buildings and palaces that have preserved this history in almost pristine condition.
One such place is the Summer Palace, which is located in the northern part of Beijing.
During a media seminar that has drawn 22 Zambian journalists to the Chinese capital, I took time to visit the Summer Palace and appreciate China’s history.
According to our tour guide, Ricky Wang, the Summer Palace attracts over 50,000 tourists a day, making it the second most visited cultural site in Beijing after the famous Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City, which was built in 1420, was the residence of the imperial families during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties
The Summer Palace, as the name implies, is where the emperor and his family relocated during summer from the Forbidden City, which usually got very hot.
Unlike the Forbidden City, which is a concrete enclosure, the Summer Palace is surrounded by beautiful gardens.
“The Summer Palace’s landscaped gardens, temples and pavilion were designed to achieve harmony with nature, to soothe and please the eye of the empress,” explained Mr Ricky, who has been taking tourists to historical sites in the Chinese capital for over 10 years.
The Summer Palace was originally named the Garden of Clear Ripples, and was built by Emperor Qianlong in 1750 to celebrate his mother’s birthday – the Empress Dowager Cixi.
Empress Dowager is said to have been the most powerful person in ancient China, and was the only one who could control the emperor.
The Summer Palace sits on 290 hectares of land, and a third of it is covered by a lake.
This makes it five degrees Celsius cooler than the Forbidden City.
Kuniming Lake is a man-made lake.
According to Mr Ricky, it took one year for about 10,000 men to dig up Lake Kuniming.
And they used the soil they dug out to build a mountain.
Perched on the 41-metre mountain is the Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha temple. Here is where the emperor offered prayers for a good harvest.
On the lake stands a huge marble-shaped boat called the Marble Stone, which was built in 1755. It is 36 metres long with a hull of massive stone slabs. It is very important to the Chinese culture as it signified the strength of the empress.
There is a Chinese saying that goes, “Water can carry a boat, and it can also capsize a boat.”
The boat, which was made out of marble, was meant to symbolise the power of the emperor.
“The boat was made with very fine marble stone and it has been here for over 200 years. It was made to signify the power of the emperor. Just like the boat, the emperor will never sink,” Mr Ricky said.
However, tragedy struck in 1860 when the Summer Palace was brutally burnt down by the Anglo-French Forces. But for her own pleasure, Empress Dowager Cixi diverted navy funds to rebuild it in 1886.
The palace was again seriously damaged by the allied forces of Eight Powers in 1900 but it was rebuilt in 1902.
According to Mr Ricky, the palace became a private property of the former Qing imperial family in 1912 after the reigning emperor resigned. Two years later, it was opened to the public at a fee.
It was formally converted into a park in 1924 after the reigning emperor was expelled from the Forbidden City by warlord Feng Yuxiang.
Only then did ordinary people have a chance to enter the garden and in 1992, the palace was appraised as the most perfectly preserved imperial garden with richest man-made scenery and most concentrated architecture in the world.
The palace is now listed as a UNESCO heritage site.
The Suzhou street is the first section you find as you enter the palace garden. It runs over 300 metres on the banks of a small lake. It has 64 shops, 14 gateways and eight small bridges.
The shop assistants wearing outfits influenced by the style of the Qing Dynasty are always on hand to warmly welcome visitors from all over the world.
As I walked from the entrance to the north, the palace gardens welcomed me with beautiful tall ancient pines, grass and cypresses which were planted over 200 years ago.
Apart from providing fresh air and a beautiful scenery to the empress, the gardens also housed different species of birds and squirrels.
I managed to at least see a few birds and some squirrels, before I reached a part where there are halls, pavilions, and the long corridor that runs along the Lake Kuniming at the foot of the hill.
The corridor is 728 metres long with 14,000 pictures painted on its walls. It is believed to be the longest painted gallery in the world.
Along the long corridor are benches, which harbour the ‘untold’ history of China.
The benches were meant for women to rest because they could not walk long distances as a result of the painful traditional practice called foot binding.
This practice involved applying tight binding to the feet of young girls to modify the shape and size of their feet.
In ancient China, it was believed that small feet were more attractive on a woman and improved her marriage prospects immensely.
Something about most tourist sites in Beijing is that they are huge and require one to walk some good distance in order to experience the beauty of the scenery.