Beihai Park is one of the oldest and best-preserved imperial gardens situated in the heart of the city near the Forbidden City and Jingshan Park. The garden covers an area of 69 hectares with a lake extending to over half of the grounds. Some of the park's scenic attractions include the White Pagoda, Hao Pu Creek, Jingxin Studio, Nine Dragon Screen, Five Dragon Pavilion and Circular City.
Beihai Park was inspired by a Chinese legend. Once upon a time, there were three magical mountains. The gods in the mountains possessed an elixir that would allow humans to gain immortality and many emperors sought the elixir of immortality. The first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin Shihuang, sent soldiers in search of the mountains and the elixir, but failed time and time again. Finally, he decided to dig a large pool and build three hills, to imitate the legend. Consequently, Western Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi as well as subsequent emperors would build a royal garden with 'one pool and three hills' since it was believed that different mountain-water combinations would lead to different effects. However, all of them wanted to find the mountains so that they could have eternal life.
The Beihai area has been the site of an imperial pleasure garden since the Liao Dynasty, and different structures and layouts were built there in successive eras. It was Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty who undertook its most dramatic renovation. It was during his reign that Beihai Park came to its modern scale and grandeur. In 1925, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the park was opened to the public.
The park is comprised of four distinct scenic areas including Qionghua Islet (Jade Flower Islet), Circular City, the eastern bank area and the northern bank area. Qionghua Islet is located in the middle of the lake and considered the central axis of the park. The islet is densely populated with halls, rockeries, pavilions, the imposing White Pagoda and Yong'an Temple. White Pagoda, the symbol of the park towers over the Qionghua Islet. The Lamaist Pagoda, which stands 35.9m high, was built in 1651. Buddhist lections, alms bowl and sarira, and remains of Buddha (Sakyamuni) are laid in the Pagoda. Directly to the west are halls and pavilion where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty would come and rest, discuss official business and relax. Another impressive structure is Yong'an Temple (Temple of Everlasting Peace). It is the largest building complex comprised of several halls, a bell tower and a drum tower. North of the islet, there is a two-storey corridor that offers an extensive view of the area. Other major sites include Zhenjue Hall, the Bell and Drum Towers and Stone Tables of Qiongdao Chunyin, which was inscribed by Emperor Qianlong of the Qin Dynasty.
The southeastern part of the park is comprised of the Circular City and Chengguang Hall. A wall surrounds the city, where a beautiful garden lies inside. During the Ming Dynasty, Emperors would come and watch firework displays at Chengguang Hall. Then during the Qing Dynasty, it was converted into a Buddhist chapel. Today, a statue of white jade Buddha is still enshrined in the main hall. Directly across Chengguang Hall is a pavilion on which stands a magnificent carved nephrite bowl that used to belong to Kublai Khan - the only relic of the Yuan Dynasty structures that once stood there.
Five-Dragon Pavilions and the Nine-Dragon Wall are on the northern bank area. Emperors would come to the Five-Dragon Pavilions to fish and gaze at the moon and stars. A sigmate (s-shaped) bridge joins the five pavilions; from a distance, it resembles a swimming dragon.
The Colored Glazed Pavilion (Liuli Ta) is a religious building and quite a dazzling attraction. It has a bright yellow roof and 1,376 small statues of Buddha made of colored glaze engraved on the outside wall. The Nine-Dragon Wall, which was built in 1756, is the most delicate of China's three surviving nine-dragon walls. The wall, about 27 meters long, is inlaid with colored glaze and has nine vivid dragons that play with pearls on either side.