Emperor’s Shopping Street

Emperor Shopping StreetDuring his reign (1736-1795), Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty had made several inspection tours of south China and was impressed by the commercial prosperity. Consequently he had shops built along the imperial resort’s Back Lake imitating the shops along the canals in Suzhou, one of the most popular tourist cities in China famous for its waterways and gardens. The imperial resort including the Emperor’s shopping street was destroyed in 1860 by the Anglo-French Allied Forces. In the late Qing period it was rebuilt as the Summer Palace, but the shopping street was not restored as there were only holes in the ground where the pilars had once stood.

As part of the renewed effort to return this historical site to its original condition, in 1986 restoration began on the Emperor’s shops and was completed in September 1990. The plans for the reconstruction work were drawn by members of the Architecture Department of Qinghua University. Their designs were in strict accordance with the original style based on historical records found in the National Archives of History, the National Library and the Forbidden City. The architectural styles, interior and exterior decorations, and even the shop signs reflect 18th century Chinese social and economic patterns. Located along the northern side of the Longevity Hill, the Emperor’s shopping street looks like a scene from a traditional landscape painting of southern China. As part of the restoration project, Huifangtang (The Hall of Painted Flowers.) and Jiayinxuan (the Veranda of Fine Shades) above the street on the northern slope of the Longevity Hill have also been revitalized, adding to the depth of the street scene.

The restored street stretches about 300 metres along the edge of the Back Lake. The construction included more than 60 shop buildings, six bridges, a small temple and nearly 30 wooden archways. The traditional archways are built in front of the shops and decoratively carved and painted in the Qing Dynasty style. All of the buildings are furnished with classical Chinese furniture. The store fronts are trimmed with the traditional sign boards and ornaments. The shops are distinctive for their historical architecture because many of them represent trades and skills which no longer exist such as the incense shops, the dye house and the wooden comb shop. The shopping street also provides visitors with new activities. Jiayinxuan (the Hall of Fine Shades) is reopened as a tea house and a place where performers will tell traditional stories and sing ballads in the Suzhou dialect. All the shop assistants are dressed in the traditional clothes of the Qing Dynasty.  They will also greet visitors in the old way by cupping one hand in the other before their chests. To further attract visitors, each day one shop will hold a traditional opening ceremony. There are five brightly-painted pleasure boats of different sizes which visitors can take out to enjoy the lake. In order to recreate the atmosphere of ancient times, visitors will have the chance to exchange their money for ancient style Chinese coins at the entrance of the street if they wish to spend money in any of the shops or the tea house or snack counters.

The street also opens in the evening when it will be lit by old style lanterns hung in every shop.

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