What would the Empress Dowager Cixi have said? Here I stand beneath the soaring ceilings of the grand pavilion in Beijing’s Aman at Summer Palace hotel, facing an intricately carved, floor-to-ceiling wooden screen depicting cypress-lined lakes and terraced hills, and what am I wearing? Not a flowing silk gown, but jeans and a T-shirt.
Thankfully the empress, known as the Dragon Lady, who ruled China from 1861 until her death in 1908, is not here to enforce a dress code. But after a 14-year restoration, the hotel—much of it occupying rooms where visitors once waited for an audience with Cixi— gives me a glimpse of what her luxurious life, if not her wardrobe, might have been like.
To get to my room, I stroll past weeping willows and through arcades painted bright red, a color that represents happiness in Chinese culture. Off a courtyard filled with ancient pines, I enter my suite. I walk across clay tiles, admiring the exposed beams spanning the high ceilings and the lattice screens that accent the walls. Four posts draped with a silk canopy surround a bed that looks big enough for a family of seven. Plush sofas and a mahogany writing desk welcome me to the sitting room, and the expansive bathroom features an oversize tub framed by still more latticework.
The next morning at six, I join other early risers for tai chi under the willow trees that line Kunming Lake, on the grounds of the Summer Palace. Dressed in a loose-fitting, white silk uniform with red ribbing and a mandarin collar, our instructor cuts a graceful figure against the misty lake, drawing the attention of passersby who take pictures of him and giggle at us. The slow, meditative movements somehow manage to be both invigorating and calming—the perfect way to start a day in the frenetic metropolis of Beijing.
I take a 10-minute cab ride to Empress Cixi’s winter home, the majestic Forbidden City, where I spend the morning surrounded by swarms of tourists like me. The Dragon Lady would never have put up with such a ruckus. When I return to the calm embrace of the Aman, I regain some of my royal serenity in a calligraphy class. I learn to write the characters for Beijing, China, and my name in (relatively) graceful brushstrokes. The bespectacled instructor remains stoic as I try to replicate his delicate strokes as brash slashes of ink. Empress Cixi was a respected painter and calligrapher, and last year one of her calligraphic works sold at Christie’s for $38,790. When I get home, my Beijing-born friend Feng will declare my work “not bad” in a way that says, “Don’t quit your day job.”
The next morning our guide, Jerry, picks up a group of us, and we drive through the pine forests of Fragrant Hills Park to a remote part of the Great Wall. We walk along narrow trails as Jerry tells us of his life as a young man in modern China. He confesses that he knew nothing about the massacre at Tiananmen Square until five years ago. Even now, he is prohibited by law from discussing it further. Jerry charts China’s remarkable embrace of capitalism in three sentences. “When my parents’ generation got married in the 1970s, everyone bought three things: a watch, a bicycle, and a sewing machine. My uncle’s generation in the ’80s bought a refrigerator, a TV, and a washing machine. My generation buys a big apartment and a BMW.” Empress Cixi, who is said to have drunk from a jade cup and eaten with golden chopsticks, was clearly ahead of her time.
As I wander the Summer Palace grounds on the last day of my trip, I watch kites dance across the sky. They are anchored by children and adults scattered amid the 544 marble lions that line Seventeen Arch Bridge, which connects to an island in Kunming Lake. I imagine the empress could have witnessed a similar scene. Then I come upon 70 people line-dancing to a perky rendition of “It’s So Easy (to Fall in Love)” sung in Mandarin and ponder what Cixi might have thought of that.
The kinetic crowds make me glad that I have a tranquil retreat. I return to my cocoon and heed the call of the tub. I light candles, draw a warm bath, and relax as Chinese classical music wafts in from the CD player in the bedroom. It’s good to be empress. A
Aman at Summer Palace, 1 Gongmenqian St., Summer Palace, Beijing, 86/(0) 10-5987-9999. From $650. amanresorts.com. This story appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.