In 1703, during a hunting expedition towards Manchuria, the land of his ancestors, Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of the Qing dynasty passed through Chengde, by then a seven-day journey from Beijing. He liked this mountainous area so much he had a hunting pavilion built there. Thanks to its pleasant temperatures, Chengde -or Rehe as it was then known (literally 'Warm River')- rapidly became the favourite summer retreat of the imperial court and over the next 89 years the extensive Bishu Shanzhuang (literally 'Mountain Resort for Avoiding the Heat') and adjoining buildings were built to accommodate the emperor and his suite of 10,000 dignitaries, soldiers and civil servants. The Mountain Resort prospered under Kangxi's son Yongzheng (1678-1735) but it was under his grand-son Qianlong (1711-1799) that it reached its peak.
Over the summer, tribes living on the frontiers of the Chinese empire came to Chengde to pay tribute to the emperor. In order to welcome and at the same time awe them, twelve temples were built in the vicinity of the ten kilometre-long wall that enclosed the Mountain Resort. At first sight these temples were copies of places of worship these tribes would have been familiar with, such as the Potala Palace or the Sangye monastery in Tibet. However a closer look revealed many Chinese architectural and decorative elements were incorporated to convey a clear message: the supreme authority of the Chinese emperor over all these tribes and their land.
Pule Si, or 'Temple of Universal Joy', is one of the smallest of these outlying temples. It was built by Emperor Qialong in 1766 to receive Mongol envoys. Once they passed through the entrance pavilion, they found themselves in a narrow courtyard enclosed by a drum and a bell tower on each side and the Tianwang Hall or Hall of Heavenly Guardians. Having paid their respect in the latter, they entered a larger courtyard surrounded by the Shangyin Hall on the left, the Huili Hall on the right and the Zhongyin Hall or Hall of Ancestors in front.
Beyond the Zhongyin Hall rose the main part of the temple, composed of three square terraces on which stood the Dawning Light Hall, a circular structure surmounted by a double-tiered conical roof. If the Dawning Light Hall is reminiscent of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in Beijing's Temple of Heaven, the design of the whole structure is actually based on a Tibetan mandala. Mongol tribes, who practiced Tibetan Buddhism, would have been familiar with the mandala symbol both architecturally and spiritually.
Originally a gallery surrounded the first terrace but it was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Access to the upper levels was through stairs fitted within the masonry walls and which emerged in little pavilions. On the second terrace, a series of colourful stupas with religious inscriptions awaited the visitors.
Once on the third terrace Mongol envoys were about to enter the heart of the sanctuary. Behind the elaborate lattice windows and decorated teak was a large wooden Tibetan mandala shrine. In its centre, the sexual act performed by the multi-armed god Samvara with his consort Vajravarahi ('The Diamond Sow') symbolized the connection between wisdom and compassion. However when the Mongols raised their eyes, they would have noticed that the ceiling above the mandala was decorated with a dragon, the very representation of the Emperor of China. With this, Qianlong, who had declared himself to be the reincarnation of Manjusri, a Bodhisattva associated with transcendent wisdom, was not only positioning himself at the very centre of the Buddhist world, but also asserting his authority over the Tibetan Buddhist tribes that populated the frontiers of his empire.
Pule Si, like most other buildings in Chengde fell into disrepair after 1820. That year Emperor Jianqing, the son of Qianlong, died while staying at the Mountain Resort. Some claimed he was struck by lightning but others believe he died of a stroke. In any case, the death of the emperor was interpreted as an ominous sign and for a few years the court stopped coming to Chengde during the summer months. Jianjing's grand-son, Xianfeng, returned to the Mountain Resort to escape the summer heat of Beijing but he also died there in 1861. After that the imperial palace was abandoned and the twelve outlying temples ceased to serve the diplomatic function they had been designed for. Nowadays only eight survive. Together with the Mountain Resort, they are on the UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.