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Beijing’s Summer Palace is just like Disneyland

June 27, 2011

The lake in the middle of Beijing's Summer Palace, designed to look like Hangzhou's picturesque West Lake. You can ride several boats on it.

I just got back from a wonderful trip to Beijing with Rick, his dad, and his little brother, who are vising China for the first time. We saw all the big sights: the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, and, of course the Great Wall. Rick and my dear friend Phillip, who lives in Beijing and loves the city, was the perfect tour guide and trip organizer.  The weather was perfect, the food was delicious, and our legs and feet are still sore.

Q: What does this Summer Palace souvenier headpiece strongly resemble? (A: Mickey Mouse ears)

But now I want to talk about how the Summer Palace is actually just like Disneyland. This was my first time visiting the Summer Palace, and while the parallels between Chinese tourist sites and America’s theme parks have struck me before, never before have the similarities been so striking that I was inspired to write a blog post about it. But the longer I spent wandering around the national treasure and learning about it, the more the comparison clicked.

The most obvious parallel is how the two parks function today. The Summer Palace and Disneyland are both extremely popular tourist sites, always very crowded. You buy tickets to get admitted. It’s a designed space that transports you to a different world. There is plenty of foliage, and plenty of clean restrooms. Vendors and little shops abound in both locations, selling you low-quality food, hats, toys, and decorative trinkets at exorbitant prices. It’s a fun-packed day for the whole family. There is plenty to see and do; both the Summer Palace and Disneyland offer boat rides to guests. Each park makes billions of dollars in revenue each year by selling you silly hats, among other things.

But the really interesting parallels emerge when you look a little deeper, and look at what separates the Summer Palace from other Chinese historical tourist sites. Let’s look at the history.

The Summer Palace was built as a summer getaway resort for the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty in 1750. It was then called the Garden of Clear Ripples. You see, Beijing gets extremely hot in the summertime. The treeless Forbidden City must have been blistering, swelteringly miserable in the days before air conditioning, as it lacked the shade, the water, and the breezes of nature. The Summer Palace was envisioned as a nature-filled paradise for the emperor and his family. In fact, Qianlong built the place for his mother’s 60th birthday, a getaway for them to enjoy together. Aww.

Walt Disney, similarly, conceived of Disneyland because of something lacking for his family. Attractions and entertainment was designed either for children, or for adults. Disney envisioned an amusement park where parents and children could play together, a safe and enclosed space full of fantasy, guarded from reality. He says he built the park in for his two daughters, so they would have a place to enjoy together. Aww.

The Summer Palace, and Disneyland have this in common: each was the dream of one powerful man who wanted to build a fun place, a retreat, for his family. And both of these powerful men–the Qianlong Emperor and Walt Disney–were just rich enough and driven enough to pull it off.

Then there’s the fact that both places are carefully designed, as destinations meant to look and feel like other places and other times.

The Summer Palace is an intricately designed space, meant to evoke the scenes of other places and other times. The grand lake in the middle, on which boats chug along, is man-made, dug out in five years, and meant to look like the gorgeous West Lake of Hangzhou, the city that Marco Polo once called the most beautiful in the world. A fake mountain was built from dirt dug out of the ground to make the lake. The Palace itself is an ancient Chinese castle. At the Summer Palace, the emperor and his family could feel like they were travelling around the world, or to a different time.

Disneyland's River's of America, designed to look like the Mississippi river. You can ride several boats on it.

Walt Disney filled his park with three fake water bodies: a river designed to look like the Missisippi, representing the grandeur of Frontier America; a river designed to look like an African jungle; and a lake to look like a planned fixture of the cities of the future. He also built a fake mountain: the Matterhorn, a centerpiece of the park, designed to look like the mountain of the same name in Switzerland. The centerpiece was a castle, made to look like a medieval European castle. At the Disneyland, the Walt Disney’s daughters and all the park’s guests could feel like they were travelling around the world, or to different times.

Suzhou Street at the Summer Palace

The Qianlong emperor also added an entire fake shopping street to the entrance of the Summer Palace, designed to look like the shops of the river town of Suzhou, famous for its silk, and also considered to be one of China’s most beautiful cities. You could take a ride on a little river boat to get from from one end to another. It was shopping idealized, transported from another place and frozen in time.

Disneyland's Main Street, USA

Every Disney park features a Main Street USA, a shopping street designed to look and feel like a Main Street of a small US town at the turn of the 20th century. Little shops with Disney products surround you. You can go on a ride in a horse-drawn carriage to get from one end to another. You can even take a steam train, just like those from the turn of the century. It is shopping Disneyfied, transported from another place and frozen in time.

At the end of the day, both the Summer Palace and Disneyland are designed spaces, the realized dreams of powerful individuals, closed off completely from the real world, intended to provide a fun family getaway. They are full of features designed to look like other places and other times, but feel real. They both hold castles, mountains, and lakes, and idealized shopping streets within their walls. It’s striking how much they are alike.

The one major difference that I’ve avoided this entire time? Disneyland was built with private funds for the enjoyment of the public. The Summer Palace was built with public funds for the enjoyment of the emperor and his family, no one else. Before the Boxer Rebellion, the Empress Dowager, Cixi, redirected public funds to rebuild the navy toward expanding the Summer Palace for herself, infuriating the people.  It was a big deal when the resort was finally opened to the masses to explore, more than 250 years after it was built.

Even though they’re building a Shanghai Disneyland resort, the Summer Palace will always be China’s original theme park, a reflection of the nation’s history and people. And tendency to buy silly hats.

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