Say what you like about those ruling Manchus, but they sure knew how to throw a party: in 1889, 5 million silver taels was splurged on “China’s Queen Victoria” Empress Dowager Cixi’s 60th birthday bash in the Summer Palace. Indeed, the Chinese will tell you that so much cash was splashed on a marble boat for the palace that there was nothing left in the coffers for a real boat or a real navy. Such an ill-advised investment portfolio had dire and immediate consequences for China: foreign allied powers razed the newly reconstructed palace to the ground in 1900.
Thus the beautiful grounds and the palace today are strongly associated in popular Chinese culture with the destructive interference of foreigners on their land. Tread softly through the enchanting scenery, composed with as much care as a poem. Wooden pavilions dot the gentle lakeside hills. An elliptical marble bridge leads your eye to the rocky south island in the middle of the lake. A sequence of pretty temples scales Longevity Hill. The divisions of labor that constituted China at the time of building – theatre, agriculture, commerce, religion – all have their architectural embodiment in the temples. Taken together, they represent a quintessentially Chinese ideal of harmony between man and nature.