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Escaping the Heat: The Kangxi Emperor’s “Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort”

(The following post is by Yuwu Song, Reference Specialist for the Chinese Collection, Asian Division.)

The “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort] is a compilation of Chinese poems by the Qing Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) with illustrations of 36 scenic spots of the hills and rivers at the Chengde Mountain Resort. Located northeast of the capital at Beijing, this expansive complex of palaces and gardens is also known as the Rehe Imperial Palace. Rehe, or Jehol as it was commonly known in the West, corresponds to the present-day Chinese city of Chengde in Hebei Province. A digitized version of this illustrated work is freely available through the Asian Division’s Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection.

This late 19th-century map offers a panoramic view of the Chengde Mountain Resort, also known as the Rehe Imperial Palace. Construction began in 1703 at the behest of Emperor Kangxi. This colorful map, composed in pen-and-ink and watercolor, depicts the palace grounds with labels for numerous points of interest. “Rehe xing gong quan tu” 热河行宮全图 [Panoramic View of the Rehe Imperial Palace], between 1875 and 1900, Geography & Map Division.

Integrated with both natural and manmade features, the summer resort has been renowned for its pleasant weather in the summer and its superb landscapes. Its construction started in 1703. As the largest imperial park in the country, it combined beautiful natural landscapes with designs of pagodas, temples, palaces, ponds, and pavilions in styles representing both northern and southern China. The buildings and gardens of various architectural styles blend in a harmonious way, set against a backdrop of lakes, pastureland, and forests. Since it was one of his favorite places, Kangxi, the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty, often spent several months every year at his summer resort to escape Beijing’s heat.

This plate, titled “Wu shu qing liang” 無暑清涼 [Cool in the Summer], presents a lake with hills in the background and a few buildings in a compound with trees inside and outside. Image 17 of juan 1 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

This page presents the poem and prose of “Wu shu qing liang” 無暑清涼 [Cool in the summer]. Image 15 of juan 1 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The story that led to the making of this book is fascinating. To celebrate both the resort’s completion and his 60th birthday, Kangxi planned in 1711 to publish some of his poems and prose works. Actively involved in the production of this anthology, he personally selected 36 views based on the Taoist notion that there are 36 heavens, a synthesis of the cosmological representations of the universe. The emperor commissioned the court painter Shen Yu to create a series of illustrations of the 36 views of the resort using beautiful patterns and motifs. A very famous artist who excelled at painting landscapes, especially buildings and pavilions, Shen tried to depict the scenery as realistically and artistically as possible with rigorous layout and smooth lines, establishing a brand-new standard for illustrations of landforms. Kangxi also ordered Zhu Gui and Mei Yufeng, two master artisans, whose careers flourished between 1669 and 1713, to produce woodblock prints of the 36 scenic views based on images drawn in simple outlines by Shen Yu. Imperial court scholar-officials Kui Xu, Li Tingyi and others helped create annotations for the series and the emperor himself composed the preface in 1712. In addition, Kangxi wrote a series of new poems and descriptive prose for the illustrations.

This plate, titled “Wan he song feng” 萬壑松風 [Thousands of Rivers and Air that Breathes from the Pine Trees], presents a river near a hill; one bridge over the river; several buildings, including a pavilion among the trees; water plants in the foreground; and a rocky landscape in the distance. Image 29 of juan 1 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The page presents the poem and prose of “Wan he song feng” 萬壑松風 [Thousands of Rivers and Air that Breathe from the Pine Trees]. Image 26 of juan 1 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

This imperial compilation comprises two volumes, featuring 16 poems in the first and 20 in the second. The woodblock print is characterized by a handwriting-style typeface in black and red ink. Each entry is introduced by a poetic title composed in four Chinese characters, which sets the scene for the verses that follow. The poems and prose not only describe the locations of the scenic sites, the natural environments, and the naming conventions, but also reflect the thinking of the emperor. Generally, the book is a useful source for the study of the construction of the summer resort, its historical status, and its creator’s philosophical thoughts as well as his aesthetic values. The names of the 36 scenic spots identified by Kangxi also serve as titles for the respective poems. Examples include “Shui liu yun zai” [Water flows away while clouds remain], “Song he qing yue” [Pine and stork in splendor], “Feng quan qing ting” [Listening to wind and stream], and “Cheng quan rao shi” [Clear water flows around rocks]. It is obvious that the emperor drew inspiration from Taoist notions about living harmoniously with nature and the Tao, the cosmic order that pervades the universe.

This plate, titled “Tian yu xian chang” 天宇咸暢 [All Under a Wide Sky in Harmony], presents the view of a lake, a building complex of courtyard buildings and a pagoda on a promontory with hills in the distance. Image 9 of juan 2 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

The page presents the poem and prose of “Tian yu xian chang” 天宇咸暢 [All Under a Wide Sky in Harmony]. Image 6 of juan 2 in Kangxi, Emperor of China, “Yu zhi bi shu shan zhuang shi” 御製避暑山莊詩 [Imperial Poems on the Summer Resort], 1712. Chinese Rare Book Collection, Asian Division.

This anthology represents a rare and classic example of Qing topographical painting, woodblock carving, and engraving. Kangxi’s poems and prose are simple and unpretentious representations of his royal mountain residence, but their literary value is debatable. It may be argued that compared with the famous Chinese poets of landscapes, such as Tao Yuanming and Wang Wei, Kangxi’s works are rather mediocre. Nonetheless, most will agree that as far as the artisanship of the book is concerned, it epitomizes the creativity and splendor of Chinese artistic works from the early 18th century.

In addition to viewing the freely available digitized version of this work in the Asian Division’s Chinese Rare Book Digital Collection, interested readers may also wish to consult a recent English translation of the work entitled “Thirty-Six Views: The Kangxi Emperor’s Mountain Estate in Poetry and Prints.”

For any inquiries about this or any other materials in the Chinese collection, please use the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian online inquiry form to contact Chinese reference staff.

One Comment

  1. john lockwood
    September 2, 2020 at 4:55 pm

    nice eye candy but i would have liked trans lations to go with the pictures! Thanx!

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