Romantic Castles and Palaces

The Summer Palace

Maurice Paléologue


THE last time that I saw the Imperial Palace of Pekin was on a morning in the last of April. The air was fresh and limpid, and the vault of heaven seemed to have lifted itself to a prodigious height. It was not that somewhat misty atmosphere of spring in France, which seems impregnated with damp and vegetable odours, and which bathes the unstable outlines of objects; neither was it that tenuous light of those mornings in the East that overspreads the distances, envelops objects, and defines their planes. It was a very dry air, for five months had passed since a drop of rain had fallen, with an almost brutal clearness which seemed to bring the horizon nearer and which harshly exhibited the forms of the buildings and the lines of the landscape.

I went out very early, and the windings of my course took me to the Imperial City, one of the three cities that compose the capital of the Middle Kingdom. The streets differed in appearance from those of the quarters I had just traversed, the shops became rarer, the roadways wider, and the temples and palaces closer together. But at this early hour there was still greater animation here, and a crowd of horsemen, pedestrians, and carriages made passage difficult.

I was about to turn in order to return to the French Legation, when a cart, peculiarly constructed upon two wheels placed almost at the back, and escorted by two horsemen, made my horse stand aside; it was a Tartar carriage from the court stables: a black mule harnessed with yellow leather and led by a groom, also in yellow livery, drew it along with great strides.

In front, visible between the open curtains, a young woman was seated with her legs crossed beneath her. She was clothed in a large mantle of salmon-pink silk bordered with blue and gold lace and ornamented down the front and on the sleeves with clusters of flowers embroidered with very delicate brilliancy and delicious harmony of colour. This vestment almost entirely covered her gown of a pale and dead green that fell in folds about her.

Her hair, gathered up on the top of her head, was divided in two thick folds, crossed here and there by long pins of gold, surmounted by butterflies of silver filagree, and artificial flowers of the strangest forms and hues. Also, as is customary among ladies of quality, her face was entirely painted with ceruse; but the cheeks and the dimple of the chin and the lips were coated with a thick layer of carmine, while a line of antimony immoderately lengthened her eyes out towards the temples, and two black mouches stuck near the cheek-bone, gave a peculiar appearance, a sort of air of morbid coquetry, to this depressing face in which life seemed to have been extinguished.

She held herself in a paralyzed immobility, with a hebetated fixity of gaze and a doubtful glimmer of intelligence, oscillating like a waxen puppet or an idol in a procession, at each jolt of the carriage. She was, doubtless, judging from the livery of the driver and the escorting horsemen, a young Tartar lady of the court, one of the Empress's maids of honour, or one of the imperial princesses shut up in the Palace.

I set out to follow her at a distance. Her chariot ascended the inclined plane of a bridge, the flooring of which was of marble; the balustrade, also of marble, supported some sculptured dragons.

Beneath the arches, the waters of a lake glittered. The light of the sun, still near the horizon, barely touched the liquid surface but spread its brilliancy everywhere else. In certain spots, lotus flowers blossomed and made the lake look like a meadow floating upon the clear and sleeping waters. It was the "Golden Lake," a dependency of the Imperial Palace, whose high walls and golden roofs could be seen in the background.

Light buildings, such as kiosks and temples, reached to the shore. The vast number of these roofs assumed rosy hues and the slightest details of their complicated architecture stood out clearly, looking in the liquid air that enveloped them, elegant, graceful and fresh amid the apricot trees and blossoming mimosas that covered the banks.

North China was, in fact, just emerging from her long winter's mourning, and the impression given by that springtide picture of earth's new awakening was exquisite.

The Tartar chariot continued to advance with the rapid steps of its mule: it was now passing at the foot of an artificial hill, planted with green trees, at the summit of which rose a Buddhist obelisk that stood out almost harshly against the blue of the sky.

But along the shore of the lake, the tints had already become deeper, and the lines less sharp. The kiosks, the pavilions, and the temples that rose upon the banks exhibited the original type of Chinese buildings, a canvas tent with turned up corners. The extreme profusion of ornamental details did not succeed in hiding the poverty of the original conception: dragons, chimeras, phoenixes, and tortoises, an entire fabulous and fantastic zoology of sculptured wood or terra cotta, surcharged the ridge-poles; figurines and painted flowers of clay weighed down the cornices, the larmiers, and the pediments; gaudy colors made a motley mixture upon the capitals of the columns and the architraves; but beneath this bristling and unrestrained decoration, you always found the absolute and invariable type that China has uniformly adopted at every epoch of her history and throughout her entire empire.

However, I had by this time arrived at the fortified enclosure of the palace. High above me a rampart reared itself, thirty feet high and surrounded by a wide moat. At regular intervals, towers with turned-up roofs jutted out over this line of stone which extended so far that it seemed to shut in an entire city. A few trees had crossed the sloping wall, and the shadows of their branches spread over the dark and stagnant waters of the moat.

A large gateway, surmounted by an enormous square tower, gave access to the interior of the palace, and three gigantic black letters engraved upon a golden panel at the summit of the tower seemed a mysterious inscription placed at the threshold of an unknown world.

And at the moment when the Tartar carriage became engulfed under the arch and was lost in the Imperial enclosure, I experienced still more powerfully the impression that I had received three years before in Morocco in front of the palace of the Sultan Moulay-Hassan. There also, in the old city of Islam shining in the sunlight, I had felt myself transported into the midst of a new world, but I saw the barriers broken down, I was able to pass through the great pointed doorways of Dar-el-Mechouar, and the Court of the Scherifs was opened before me, as a scene of fairy-land or dreamland unfolds in a dazzling brilliancy of light and colour.

Here, on the contrary, everything remained closed and impenetrable.

However, the topography of the palace was not entirely unknown to me; I had already studied the plan made by the Jesuit missionaries who visited it in the Eighteenth Century, and, indeed, from the heights of the ramparts of the Tartar village, I had been able to recognize the general arrangement and distinguish the regular succession of its rectangular court-yards and gardens containing forty-eight enormous palaces and about the same number of pavilions, kiosks, arches and gateways.

Only the tops of the principal buildings rose above the surrounding wall and into the clumps of verdure. Very far away, in the south, near the "Gate of Eternal Purity," I perceived the temple of the ancestors of the dynasty of Ta-Thsing now reigning, where the Emperor comes at stated dates to accomplish the sacred rites of the official cult.

Then nearer, three buildings, taller than the rest, stood in a row, and the sculptured dragons on the ridge-poles and the glazed tiles on the roofs were resplendent in the sunlight: these were the three palaces of the "Sovereign Concord, Medium. Concord, and Protective Concord," where the Sovereign attends to the affairs of state and traces with his vermilion-steeped pencil the characters that express his decisions and that are laws venerated as the figured and material form of the Imperial will. There, every morning at two o'clock, the Emperor presides at the Grand Council of the Middle Kingdom; five ministers only have access to it. There, no matter what their age or fatigue, they must remain standing the whole time, or bow their foreheads to the ground when, from his throne, a stage of gilded wood raised six feet above the floor, the Son of Heaven addresses them. During the minority of the sovereigns, as is the case with the present Emperor, the Empress Regent is present also in the council, but she is not considered as there, and a screen of yellow silk hides her from all eyes.

Then I saw a confused mass of houses of imperial princes, Manchus, chamberlains, daughters of Emperors married to Mongol princes and immured in the palace until their death, wives of the second degree and concubines of the deceased sovereigns, ladies of honour, mistresses of ceremonies, and eunuchs, an entire population, a wisely arranged hierarchy amounting to more than eight thousand persons. Towards the east, in the dazzling sunlight, appeared also the barracks of the three banners of the guard, the treasury, the shops of porcelain, silver, and silk, ornaments, garments, tea, religious objects destined for the Son of Heaven, and manufactories where things are prepared for his exclusive use; the armoury, the stables, the Imperial library where the oldest annals of the world are kept, the "Pavilion of the Literary Flowers," whither the Emperor repairs in the second moon of the year to interpret the sacred books; and the temple of the Tchouan-sin-tien where the sacrifices to the memory of Confucius and the great philosophers are performed.

Finally, very near me, behind the gardens that ran along the length of the wall of the enclosure, I caught a glimpse of the "Palace of the Superior Terrestrial Element," which recalled the memory of that unfortunate Empress Aluteh, who died in 1875 at the age of eighteen. She was the daughter of a Manchu prince. When very young, barely fifteen years, a decree proclaiming her for the Emperor tossed her brusquely into the Court of Pekin from her province in Tartary, and shut her up in the palace which she was to leave only with her life. On November 16, 1872, at midnight, she entered in bridal toilette through the "Gate of Celestial Purity": she wore a robe of red silk embroidered with dragon and phoenix, a large scarlet veil enveloped her from head to foot. Three years later she went out dead through the "Flowered Gate of the East": she had killed herself on learning of the death of her husband, the Emperor Tong-Tche: an unusual luxury was lavished upon her funeral procession, and embroideries of pale blue silk upon white satin embossed with gold covered her coffin.

However, the hour was advancing; the meeting of the Council was over; the couriers of state were departing for the provinces; the great mandarins came out of the palace, and after making interminable bows, got into their chariots, and I returned to the French Legation.

Romantic Castles and Palaces, As Seen and Described by Famous Writers, Edited and Translated by Esther Singleton. 1901.
The Summer Palace, China by Maurice Paléologue. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.