Ep. 041: The Summer Resort of the Qing Emperors

A monument to Chinese multi-ethnicity

Tang, Liao, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing: The list of Chinese dynasties is almost musical. But how many realize that some of those regimes were not ethnically Chinese at all? Let's explore how ethnicity impacted on the summer resort of the Manchurian Qing emperors in this episode of


One of the great pities of my Chinese travels is that--with limited time and resources--I often found myself zeroing in on a temple from my list, to the exclusion of many spectacular sights. Such is the case with my visit to Chengde, part of a week-long trip to China's northeast. Chengde is a mountainous "town" of less than four million about a three-hour drive north of Beijing. Located there is the Mountain Resort of the Qing emperors, called in Chinese "Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat." Sort of a Qing-Dynasty "Camp David."

Yongyousi Pagoda inside the Summer Palace grounds; I didn't have enough time or money to go inside.

I'd love to tell you about my visit to (per Wikipedia) the "large complex of imperial palaces and gardens" with its "vast and rich collection of Chinese landscapes and architecture," one of "China's four famous gardens, [a] World Heritage Site... and a Class 5A Tourist Attraction" with an area of 2.2 miles, nearly half the urban area of the entire city--but I didn't see it (except for a quick peek at a pagoda over a wall).

I'd also love to share pictures and impressions of the "72 scenic spots," including especially "the Eight Outer Temples"--but I visited only two of those: the one on my list of 142 Key Temples and its attached neighbor, though I did see three more from outside.

The Eight Outer Temples

Nevertheless, it's worth taking a moment to discuss those temples, because they represent something of a unique aspect of China's long history.

As I mentioned above, the Qing were not ethnic Chinese. In fact, they were Manchus, members of China's fourth-largest ethnic group (and thus, one of the smaller stars on the Chinese flag; the others are the Zhuang, Hui, and Uyghur, and the large one is the Han). Unlike the Mongols, who had established the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), the Manchu who came to power in 1644 and ruled until the rise of the Republican period in 1912 had been sedentary farmers. Their martial prowess was based in their skills in hunting, and especially the practice of archery on horseback.

Qianlong Emperor hunting (Wikipedia)

Their rule was known--not surprisingly, as they were a minority themselves--for its tolerance of multiple ethnicities. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Eight Outer Temples.

The temples are called "outer" because they lie more-or-less in an arc around the north and east sides of the vast imperial complex, outside the walls of the grounds. Nevertheless, they were the beneficiaries of imperial patronage. Designed largely in Tibetan idiom, they were built more as places of lodging than places of worship, accommodating visiting envoys of various ethnicities, including not only Tibetans, but also Mongolians, Kazakhs, and others.

The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799; reign began 1733), one of the temple builders and a devout Buddhist, wrote, "These buildings embody the successful unity of the hearts of the people of the inner and outer lands." Thus, they're ethnic-styled buildings facing--in tacit obeisance--the Emperor in the guise of the Summer Resort. Incidentally, the "Pu" in all those names means "universal"--universal peace, universal protection, etc.--another indication of the broad-mindedness of the Emperors, and Buddhism.

From northwest to southeast they are:

  • Shuxiang Temple: closed to the public, but I walked past its gate

  • Putuo Zongcheng Temple: the largest temple in Chengde, it's a replica of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, built in honor of the then Dalai Lama, but he never saw it. I, at least, shot it from below.

  • Xumi Fushou Temple: built to house the sixth Panchen Lama on his 1781 visit, and named for mythical Mount Sumeru. I shot it from below, as well.

  • Puning Temple: my target (see below); Lonely Planet says it's the only active temple among the Eight.

  • Puyou Temple: the main hall burned in 1964, though restoration is ongoing. Adjacent to Puning Temple, it's easy to visit, and one (pricy) ticket covers both. See below.

  • Anyuan Temple: only the main hall remains; it was built in imitation of a temple in Yining, now in the Kazakh Autonomous Region, to pacify rebels in the western provinces.

  • Pule Temple: built especially for Kazakh and other envoys.

  • Puren Temple: the earliest temple in Chengde; closed to the public.

I walked past the first three, and visited two in the center, but didn't make it down as far as the last three.

Puning, the Temple of Universal Peace

The front of the Puning Hotel, attached to Puning Temple, Chengde. I really hated to leave.

Puning Temple was my primary goal. In telling my story, I'll skip over the "joys" of a 13-hour overnight ride in the hard seats of a Chinese train, and start with my arrival in the glorious mountain city. Fortunately, my hotel was located right in Puning Temple, and let me check in upon my bleary-eyed 6 a.m. arrival, so I got some real sleep before heading out to see the temple itself after lunch.

Inside this building is the monumental statue of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Guanyin, probably not "the largest wooden Buddha statue in the world."

Puning is not the most famous of the group of Eight Outers--that would be Putuo Zongcheng--but it has one thing the others lack. The buildings in the temple's fore-parts are more or less Chinese in style, with little to distinguish them from other temples I've seen. But then we reach a huge pavilion containing a colossal statue of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion. At 73 feet tall, the ticket calls it "the largest wooden Buddha statue in the world." I doubt it. But it is big--and beautiful!

That not-biggest Guanyin, shot from the upper gallery

After paying 80 Chinese yuan (around $11 then) to get into Puning Temple, I had to pay another 20 ($3) to go upstairs for a closer look at the upper portions of the statue (after all, she is 73 feet tall!) The attendant said (by rote) "No photo." So I replied in Chinese, "Why? I paid 100rmb for this!" He repeated "No photo" then pointedly disappeared, giving me tacit carte blanche. YAY!

The temple was built in 1755 (exactly 200 years before the year of my birth) as part of a pacification effort aimed at the Dzungar people in the far west--hence the name Puning Si, "the Temple of Universal Peace." As the Dzungar were "lamaists" (like many of the western tribes, including the Mongols), the rear portion of the temple is a rough copy of Tibet's famed Samye Monastery.

A crumbling pagoda, solid--except for a passage that goes right through. Still, picturesque.

Interestingly, many of the "buildings" are in fact just solid blocks decorated to look like structures. The cause for this fakery becomes clearer when you look at a model of the grounds: seen from above, the decoys create a sort of mandala around the building housing the colossus (which is called the "Mahayana [Great Vehicle] Hall").

After spending a few moments (and saying my prayers) in the garden in the temple's upper reaches, I moved next door.

The reason for the fakery is clearer when you see how the fake buildings create a sort of mandala around the "Mahayana Hall."

Puyou and Other Temples Seen

Puyou Temple lost several buildings in a 1964 fire; platforms replace them for the time being. This was the "Dharma Wheel Hall"; note Puning's Guanyin Pavilion in the background.

Pass through a gate in the east wall of Puning Temple and you're inside Puyou, which was once a center for training monks in the distinctive style of argumentation used in Tibetan tradition. The space where the main hall stood before the 1964 fire is now just a large platform; other buildings surround it. Most interestingly, there are just 175 of the 500 arhats; one source I read says the remainder were destroyed by the Japanese in 1937. One hall I entered offered the creepy scene of replacements wrapped in black plastic, so I guess the whole set will be restored soon.

These (presumed) arhats were sitting in the corner of one of the halls; their "eyes hadn't been opened" yet, so they wait under wraps. I have no idea where they'll put them, as the few halls there are are fully "staffed."

To the east of Puyou is tiny Guangyuan Temple--not one of the Outer Eight--now abandoned and seemingly used as a plant nursery. Its walled-up doorway is incredibly evocative.

Past the gate of Puyou Temple are the crumbling remains of Guangyuan Temple. I know nothing about it except man!, was it evocative.

The next morning I squeezed in a few more sights before boarding a bus for Beijing and on to Zhengding, in the more southerly stretches of Hebei Province.

This is Shuxiang Temple, Chengde, closed to the public.

Starting at the far western end of the Eight, I saw Shuxiang Temple, closed to the public--so the monks can practice more diligently, they say. Ancient trees guard its approach, and antique stone lions are trapped in cages on either side.

I sat under one of those trees and said my prayers. Not shown in my photos is the looky-loo who hovered over me the whole time. He and his buddy were sitting nearby with their dogs, and he got up and came over as soon as I started. Afterward, we exchanged pleasantries:

Me: "Good morning."

Him (perfectly): "Good morning" (then to his friend) "Good morning, shenme yisi?" which is Chinese for "What does 'good morning' mean?"

I translated, they laughed, I left.

This grandiose pile is Putuo Zongcheng Temple, modeled after the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Note the "Red Platform" on the hillside.

After strolling through fields of corn and sunflowers, where morning glories tumbled out over the road and a man tended his caged birds, I came to overwhelming Putuo Zongcheng Temple, the largest temple in Chengde, with its gigantic "Red Platform" up on the hillside. Without time, energy, or cash enough to enter, I settled for the spectacular view from the road.

The gate of this and the next temple were very similar.

Xumi Fushou's gate is very similar to that of Putuo Zongcheng, but the temple isn't quite as huge.

Smaller--but still large--Xumi Fushou Temple is, as I mentioned, named for mythical Mount Sumeru, the central mountain of the world or "World Axis" in several Indian belief systems. "Xumi" is a transliteration of "Sumeru"; the other two syllables of the name mean "Happiness" and "Longevity." A gorgeous old stone bridge--named in the area's UNESCO listing--stands out front, built with five arches in 1780.

I then hopped a bus into town for my only glimpse of the "Mountain Resort." Looking up over a wall, I was able to get a closer look at a pagoda that I'd been seeing from a distance since yesterday. This is Yongyou Temple Pagoda inside the Summer Palace grounds, which Lonely Planet says "soars above the fragments of its vanished temple." I'd have loved to have seen those "fragments," but lacking time (and money), this look over the wall had to do.

After poking around a little more, I headed back to my temple/hotel, grabbed my bags, and left for the bus station for my onward journey.


Until next time, then, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: We'll pay a quick visit to the southern Japanese city of Kumamoto and the cave where the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi wrote his Book of Five Rings.