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Monday, November 05, 2007
The China Chronicles - The Summer Palace
Aside from the Forbidden City, Beijing's Summer Palace is probably the second most visited tourist attraction, and is certainly a must see on any one's list.

It has origins dating back as far as 1750, but is most widely associated with Empress Dowager Ci Xi as her summer playground. This woman was a formidable despot. A tiny terror known for her cunning, treachery, shrewdness and ambition. She essentially ruled China for 47 years after the death of the Emperor Xianfeng, at the twilight of the Qing Dynasty. She began life in the Royal Court as the lowliest concubine, and after tricking the Emperor into getting her pregnant, was able to establish herself as the mother of the next Emperor. Lucky for her, her son was only five when the Emperor died, propelling her into a role of unusual power and prestige at the age of 27. The Emperor realized this, and before his death, set up a system of Eight Regents to rule the country until his son came of age and could assume power. Ci Xi was too smart and ambitious to let this happen, and through a coup with Prince Gong, she had three of the eight regents killed and seized power.

There have been many books and movies written about Ci Xi, and I bought one to learn more about her, because she truly is a fascinating character. She seems to be regarded as a cross between Eva Peron and Imelda Marcos in China.

Oh, and just when you thought she couldn't get any more powerful, her son Tongzhi, who apparently had the libido of a rabbit, and whose ribald tales of debauchery in Beijing brothels was widely known, died of syphilis just two years into his rule as Emperor. Since he spent most of that time cavorting in brothels anyway, his mother essentially had an unbroken period of rule over the country.

Ci Xi sure had expensive tastes, that's for sure. The Summer Palace had largely been destroyed in 1860 after the Second Opium Wars, and with her Navy's treasury nearly depleted from various foreign wars and having lost most of its warships in the first Sino Japanese war of 1894, Ci Xi reportedly spent millions of the Navy's treasury on the Summer Palace for her sixtieth birthday celebration, and to make sure she rubbed the Navy's nose into it well and good, she had an ornate marble boat built that floats nowhere, but adorns the lake to this day.

The Stone Boat

She is also rumored to have insisted on having 128 different dishes prepared for her at lunch every day. Not to eat, but just to enjoy the different smells. The grounds and palaces are incredibly ornate, and as an over the top statement of opulence, luxury and indulgence, you can't get much better than the Summer Palace.

There were lots of other things to see there however, like this shot of four generations of Chinese women visiting the Palace together.

Four Generations

Or of this little boy. Note the open pant bottoms. These are Chinese "diapers", you just plop the kid down whenever he needs to go. The "stop and squat" method is ingrained early and often.

Chinese Diapers

And vendors outside the Palace. A sure sign of fall are these guys selling roasted sweet potatoes off the back of bicycles. The fact that they are roasted in 50 gallon chemical drums, makes them a lot less appealing, but hey, however you like your toxins...


This is a detail of the 750+ meter walkway at the Summer Palace. Every single beam is individually painted on all sides with murals of Chinese landscapes. Hundreds of them! During the Cultural Revolution, they were all painted white....


Dragon Boats cruise the lake at the Palace, giving rides to tourists....


This guy however, was just cleaning duckweed out of the lake.....


Temple details...


We had our own imperial luncheon at the Palace restaurant. Surprisingly not touristy, and they just kept bringing dish after dish, after dish.... The sweet and spicy fish (upper right hand corner) was especially good.


Next: FINALLY - we're off to the Silk Road!!
posted by Broadsheet @ 2:11 PM  
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