As I walk through the gardens of the Summer Palace, 12 kilometres northwest of Beijing, skeletal trees bend towards the pavilion jutting into Kunming Lake. The sun catches the gold-fringed branches swaying in tune with the reeds below, with all the delicacy of a Chinese brush painting.
This is my first view of the Heralding Spring Pavilion, its narrow pillars set against the hills and its fluted roofs unfurling into the sky. People linger here. From the shore you can look across the lake towards Nanhu Island, reached by a 17-arch bridge guarded by 500 carved stone lions. To the north you can see the Tower of Buddhist Incense and the Temple of the Sea of Wisdom perched on the summit of Longevity Hill.
Ringing the lake against a backdrop of hills, these gardens are a superb setting for an array of 3000 palaces, pavilions, temples, pagodas, courtyards and an entire market street. They were created in the 12th century during the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), although the present layout was designed during the time of the Manchu Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), drawing inspiration from the best gardens in China. There is the Garden of Harmonious Interest with a huge lotus pond spanned by delicate stone bridges. There are magnolias, flowering crab trees and peonies intermingled with bronze mythological figures that have the hooves of an ox, heads of a dragon and the antlers of a deer.
It has not always been so peaceful. In 1860, during the last stages of the Second OpiumWar, the French and the English burnt the Summer Palace to the ground. This devastating blow to the emperor forced him and his entourage to flee Beijing. Distraught, the emperor turned to drugs and alcohol and died in exile.
Thus began the reign of powerful Dowager Cixi, birth mother of the emperor’s young son and known for her conservatism and ruthlessness. ‘‘Whoever makes me unhappy for a day, I will make unhappy for a lifetime,” she said.
On the emperor’s death, Dowager Cixi managed to outwit eight regent ministers to whom the dying emperor had entrusted power, sentencing three to death and imprisoning the rest. She also managed to outmanoeuvre the First Empress (Empress Dowager Ci’an), with whom she was meant to share the upbringing of her five-year-old son.
Dowager Cixi governed first through her son, Emperor Tongzhi, who died at the age of 18, and then through her nephew, Guangxu, who died aged 37. Neither son nor nephew was able to exercise power independently of the powerful dowager, who ruled for 47 years.
But it was under Dowager Cixi’s regime, in 1888, that the lavish Summer Palace was rebuilt. It stood as an important symbol of imperial power but also served as a summer retreat away from the political intrigues of the Forbidden City. In 1900, however, during the Boxer Rebellion, the palace suffered a further onslaught by foreign powers. Undeterred, Dowager Cixi rebuilt it for the second time and it is this building we enjoy today. It symbolises a defiant stance against foreign powers but also the lavish expenditure of the last days of the Empire that, some believe, contributed to its downfall.
Dowager Cixi seems to accompany me on my tour. I imagine her hosting banquets of 150 dishes, drinking from her jade cup and eating with golden chopsticks; or sitting on her hardwood throne, from where she exercised her rule in the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity. I imagine her appearing through one of the trapdoors in the three-tiered wooden theatre in the Garden of Virtue and Harmony. She was particularly well-known for playing the part of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. This seems ironic given her treatment of the regent ministers and rumours about the murder of several of her enemies, even close family members. Then there is the Hall of Jade Ripples, where she kept her nephew, Guangxu, under house arrest for 10 years after repressing his attempts at reform.
She was not always called Dowager Cixi. This was the name given to her on the death of her husband. As a girl she was known as Yehenara and came from modest origins; her father was a Manchu captain in the imperial banner regiment. Yehenara fell in love, so the story goes, with a Manchu garrison commander but at the age of 16 she was chosen to be a concubine of Emperor Xianfeng. In this rags-to-riches story, Yehenara was taken away from her family and fiance and confined to the Summer Palace. After a long wait she was summoned by eunuchs to the emperor’s bed. She was not the emperor’s main consort but she was the only one to give birth to a son, which paved the way for her rise to power.
I stroll down the 727 metres of the Long Corridor, which joins the imperial administrative and living quarters to the cluster of buildings built into the side of Longevity Hill. An open-air wooden structure, the corridor is a highlight of the palace and was built as a protection from the heat and bad weather. As people walk through the red and green pillars, cooled by the lakeside breeze, they point with delight at hundreds of coloured paintings on the ceiling depicting famous episodes in Chinese history. It is said no unmarried couple walks the length of the corridor without agreeing to tie the knot.
To the left of the corridor is the infamous Marble Boat, built by Dowager Cixi with funds diverted from the navy. To the right are the pavilions and temples built into the slope of Longevity Hill overlooking the lake. I walk up the hill through the Gate of Dispelling Clouds and glance upwards to the Tower of Buddhist Incense.
I walk up more steps and through the Hall of Moral Glory. There are tier on tier of red-tiled roofs curling upwards, totem-like red pillars interlaced with white stone staircases and balustrades, gold calligraphy, carved lizards scampering across roof ridges and the occasional yawning lion exercising its jaws. More steps guide me through the Hall of Buddhist Incense to the summit, where the bronze Thousand Handed Buddha spreads out his arms across the lake. He stretches towards the bridge guarded by 500 lions and further out to the towering skyscrapers of Beijing.
Perhaps it is not surprising the Dowager clung onto power so she could continue to enjoy such splendour. The palace has an intimacy, openness and elegance not found in the Imperial City.
Enjoyment of the palace and the gardens did not remain the exclusive prerogative of the imperial family. With the success of the revolution in 1911, three years after the death of the dowager, the gardens were opened to the public and became a park in 1924 when Puyi, the last of the emperors, was thrown out of power. In 1998 the Summer Palace was designated as a World Heritage site. But old wounds die hard. There are still those in China who campaign for the recreation of the gardens and the palace as they were before the destruction by foreign powers.
But I prefer the palace and the gardens as they are, reminding us of Dowager Cixi’s steely determination. Today they serve as a welcome retreat, not from the political intrigues of the Forbidden City but from the high-rise development, traffic and pollution of Beijing.
This article was first published in May 2009 on http://www.traveller.com.au/a-dowagers-secrets-b5we