City in China: Chengde

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Chengde is famous for Bishu Shanzhuang(also called the Imperial Summer Villa and Mountain Resort), a summer getaway for the Qing emperor and his court that grew to be larger thanthe Forbidden City andSummer Palace combined. The selection of Chengde for the emperor’s summer home also led over time to the establishment of an impressive series of temples.

Chengde is worth several days to take in all its sights. The great Qing emperors Kangxiand Qianlong, responsible for the glory of Bishu Shanzhuang, used it not only for their own pleasure but as a way to symbolically bind together imperial China’s far-flung and restive ethnic minorities. As a result, Chengde’s temples and Mountain Resort buildings include wonderful replicas of Tibet’s Potala Palace and various Tibetan and Mongolian Lama temples, along with indigenous Manchurian-style buildings and gardens that imitate the fantastic landscapes of southern China.

Though many structures have suffered neglect and damage over the years, a number have been recently restored. Alongside the remains of the imperial summer resort, the area’s natural landscape has much to offer, from pleasant paths through woods and grasslands to the bizarre rock formation known as Sledgehammer Rock.

History

Qing emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) came across the site of the Imperial Summer Villa on a hunting trip and was so taken by its rugged, picturesque landscape and cool air that he decided to stay there, at least during the hot Beijing summers. Construction began in 1703 and soon Bishu Shanzhuang (which translates as Flee-the-Heat Mountain) was serving as a second capital, with 36 major buildings in place by 1711. By 1790, Kangxi’s grandson, Qianlong, expanded the complex, adding another 36 imperial structures.

Bishu Shanzhuang’s role as a second center of a sprawling, multi-ethnic China was enhanced by the construction of numerous buildings in the styles of various minority peoples, including Tibetans, Mongolians, Kazakhs and Manchurians themselves (the Manchu Qing ruled majority Han China as outsiders, at least in the eyes of Han who remained loyal to the deposed Ming Dynasty).

Support for Buddhist institutions was also key to maintaining national unity. Hence, the amazing Puning Temple, the Putuozongcheng Temple (a scale replica of Lhasa’s Potala Palace) and other temples built to make visitors from all part of the empire feel welcome.

One such visitor was the Tibetan Panchen Lama, who traveled to Beijing (under orders, it must be said) to celebrate Qianlong’s birthday in 1786. One can imagine his surprise at being housed in Putuozongcheng. Sadly, he did not survive the trip, dying either of smallpox or poisoning, depending on who’s telling the story. In 1793, the first official emissary from the British Empire, Lord McCartney, paid Qianlong a famous visit. Qianlong dismissed the entreaties made by McCartney on behalf of the British East India Company and King George III, essentially telling them to mind their own business and take note of China’s superiority.

Bishu Shanzhuang experienced its heyday under Qianlong, later falling out of imperial favor after two rulers died in Chengde—the emperors Jiaqing (1820) and Xianfeng (1860)—tainting it with a reputation for ill luck. By that time, however, China had more to worry about than an emperor-killing summer retreat—the previously snubbed British were leading the assault by Western imperial nations on China’s slipping power, wresting concession after concession from the beleaguered Qing, even going so far as to attack Beijing and loot and burn the Old Summer Palace. In the meantime, an empty Bishu Shanzhuang drifted into obscurity and decay, only to return to prominence over a century later as one of China’s premier tourist attractions.

Climate

Despite its imperially bestowed name of “Flee the Heat Mountain,” Bishu Shanzhuang and the rest of Chengdu have a climate not far off from that of Beijing. Little differences in temperature and air quality can make a big difference in comfort, however, especially during the dog days of summer in Beijing. If you’re coming from the capital, you can generally expect Chengde to be a few degrees cooler (and clearer, at least in terms of air pollution).

The hottest month is July, which sees average high temperatures of 31º C (88º F) and relatively humid air. July is also the wettest month on average. September is lovely, with highs in the mid 20sº C (mid 70sº F), and by October the weather becomes crisp, with clear cool days and average lows at night of 3º C (38º F). Snowfall can come as early as late October and winter is quite cold and dry, with January average lows hitting -16º C (4º F). After fall, spring is generally agreed to be the best time to visit, with April, May and early June being particularly pleasant before the summer heat sets in. Even at the height of summer, however, Chengde nights are refreshingly cool.

New words:
避暑山庄Bìshǔshānzhuānɡ: Bishu Shanzhuang

紫禁城Zǐjìn chénɡ: the Forbidden City

颐和园Yíhéyuán : Summer Palace

康熙Kānɡxī: Kangxi

乾隆Qiánlónɡ: Qianlong

西藏布达拉宫XīzànɡBùdálāɡōnɡ: Tibet’s Potala Palace

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