Philippe FORÊT

From 1703 to 1820, the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) had its summer capital in the city of Chengde, north of the Great Wall. Twice as big as the Yuanming Yuan summer palace of Beijing, Bishu Shanzhuang (Mountain Resort to Flee Summer Heat) of Chengde is today China’s largest imperial park.

The imperial residence of Bishu Shanzhuang lies between the Chengde and the Waiba Miao temples (Eight Outlying temples) in a small basin crossed by the Wulie River and surrounded by mountainous terrain dominated by Chuifeng Peak. The Waiba Miao temples surround the gardens of the imperial residence. The Wulie River isolates four Waiba Miao temples from the Qing residence, which is further protected by a massive wall and a dam. Within the residence three districts extend from north to south: the Wanshu Yuan prairie around the Mongol camp; the Chinese garden district around Ruyi Lake and Island; and the three imperial palaces. The Qing court sojourned every summer in Chengde and hunted in the natural reserve of Mulan.

The Bishu Shanzhuang hills constitute the largest and most original landscape component of the imperial residence. They evoke the Changbai Shan Mountains, where the Qing dynasty had its mythical birthplace. The hill district was designed also for seclusion and contemplation. Si Mian Yun Shan, the name of a kiosk that lies at the center, epitomized Chengde’s lifestyle: isolation surrounded by clouds.

The composite style of the Chengde gardens is uniquely rich in political, aesthetic, and religious references. The built landscape results from the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors’ careful analysis of the internal spatial organization of the residence, the interactions suggested by the physical and architectural landmarks of the site of Chengde, and the universal appeal the two monarchs wanted to grant to the mountain resort.

The Kangxi emperor (1654–1722) chose the site, designed the palace and gardens, named thirty-six vistas, established a network of twenty-one hunting lodges along the road he built to link the Gubeikou gate of the Great Wall to Mulan, and authored an illustrated album of Bishu Shanzhuang.

Born in Chengde, the Qianlong emperor (1711–1799) enlarged the palace, added a library, built ten outlying temples, conceived a new series of thirty-six vistas, commissioned a number of paintings, and reedited Kangxi’s album. The Qianlong emperor used topography to magnify the unequal relationship the Qing state developed with the Tibetan Buddhist dignitaries after the Qing banners (Manchu military groups) conquered Lhasa in 1720.

The two emperors built facilities inside Bishu Shanzhuang to entertain Mongol vassals, Tibetan dignitaries, and foreign ambassadors. They erected mighty Sino-Tibetan temples around the imperial residence that competed with those of Lhasa and Shigatse.

The panorama of the Waiba Miao temples can be admired from the kiosks erected on the summits of the imperial residence. The most prominent of Waiba Miao temples, the Sumeru and Potala temples, are in Shizi Gou, the religious valley of Bishu Shanzhuang.

With its distinctive pagoda, Jinshan is the focal point of most vistas. The fabricated island is the highest landmark of the garden district. The island is surrounded by lakes and islands that reflect the cosmic jiu shan ba hai landscape archetype. A mountain at the center of eight concentric continents separated by eight seas constitutes the Buddhist universe. Jinshan is the collective name of the nine mountains of this cosmogony. In Chengde, Jinshan stood for Mount Sumeru and acted as the local substitute for the pivot of the Buddhist universe. The various heavens of Buddhist cosmology surround the towering Sumeru. The defender of Buddhism, Indra (Tiandi in Chinese), lives on its summit.

Today, the imperial gardens exude an overarching style of grandeur and significance, and manifest the territorial right and might of the administration that has restored them. In 1994 UNESCO approved the inscription of Bishu Shanzhuang and Waiba Miao temples on its World Heritage list. The short report submitted by China described the mountain resort as the crystallization of imperial garden and temple construction. Apart from its economic significance to the domestic tourist industry, Chengde serves again the political needs of an autocratic and multiethnic state.

Further Reading

Forêt, P. (2000). Mapping Chengde: The Qing landscape enterprise. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Millward, J. A. (Ed.). (2004). New Qing imperial history: The making of the Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Eight Immortals cross the sea, each employing his or her theurgy.


Bā xiān guò hǎi

Source: Forêt, Philippe. (2009). Bishu Shanzhuang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 176–177. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Bishu Shanzhuang (Bìshǔshānzhuāng 避暑山庄)|Bìshǔshānzhuāng 避暑山庄 (Bishu Shanzhuang)

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