To the north of the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity is the Garden of Virtuous Harmony. Inside the garden is a 21 metre high 17 metre wide, three-storey grand theatre, which happens to be the second highest building in the Summer Palace. It's only next to the Hall of Buddist Incense in height.
Now it is the best preserved ancient theatre in China. The stage and ceiling have trap-doors, to enable actors to appear and disappear, a deep well and five ponds supplied water for special effects. In the course of the performance, a grand water scene could easily be produced when necessary on the stage.
Some veteran actors even say that their voices could be heard clearer here because of the effect of the deep well. It's incredible that the Grand Theatre was only built for the 63th birthday (1892) of the Empress Dowager Ci'xi, and approximately 1.6 million tales of silver was spent on it!
The Empress Dowager Ci'xi was a great lover of traditional Chinese plays. Sometimes she would watch for hours from the Hall of Pleasure Smile, which is opposite the theatre.
Inside the hall was a throne for her, but she never sat in the throne when watching plays, she would simply sit on the wooden bed near the window, the eunuchs would prepare some fruits and cakes for Ci'xi.
Ci'xi loved to watch the plays very much and sometimes she would even take part, disguised herself as the Goddess of Mercy. Emperor Guangxu would sit near the window, outside the door to the left. While those concubines sat at the right hand side. Ci'xi usually invited some princess, dukes and ministers to watch the performance together with her, so when there was a performance, the scene must be very impressive here because of the number of honored audience.
Now, inside the garden, surrounding the grand theatre are seven exhibition rooms, in which many national treasures as well as the daily necessities of the Empress Dowager Ci'xi are on display. Attendants within the garden dressed themselves as the Qing eunuchs and waitress. Those eunuchs would stand by the gate and punch the entrance tickets while those waitress would guide the visitors inside the Garden of Virtuous Harmony and offer some explanation about the exhibits.
One exotic foreign item in the first exhibition room deserves special attention. It is a vintage car, a Benz. This car, once owned by the Empress Dowager Ci'xi, is the first car China imported. Yuan Shikai, a wily warlord, who knew that Ci'xi liked nothing better than gifts, presented this car to Ci'xi in order to curry favor with the Empress Dowager.
Yuan Shikai was right this time! The Empress was indeed very delighted! It was a gift after her own heart. Though she was used to the sedan chair, she decided to try the "running monster". This shocked her ministers, who knelt down and begged her to stop such an adventurous ride.
It is said that three German engineers claimed that it was a second-generation Benz made in 1898, when they visited the Summer Palace in 1976, they would trade ten brand-new Mercedes-Benz cars for this antique. However, the offer was declined.
The other exhibition rooms contain Ci'xi's jewelry, dinnerware and wax figures of Ci'xi and Guangxu and some concubines. In this garden alone, 20 eunuchs and 28 ladies-in-waiting used to attend to the Ci'xi s every wish.
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