Yuanmingyuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness), The Old Summer Palace (Qing Dynasty), Beijing, China

I am currently reading Edward Rutherfurd’s “China” and the Yuanmingyuan plays an integral part in much of the story in the 1860s. I find this fascinating

Brief Introduction

Located in the northern part of the Haidian District of Beijing, Yuanmingyuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness), aka Old Summer Palace, was one of the most important imperial gardens of the Qing Dynasty. Its other nickname, King of Gardens, offers a clue to the totality of its physical setting, its splendid – and splendidly laid out – architecture, which included richly adorned halls, temples and pavilions, and its magnificent gardens, both in the narrow and in the broad sense, the latter being in the sense of a park, since some of the Old Summer Palace’s gardens were in fact replicas of entire parks from other localities round about the country, in much the same way that modern-day Chinese theme parks now incorporate reduced-size replicas of famous international landmarks such as Niagra Falls (in USA), the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, and the Eiffel Tower.

Yuanmingyuan in the Past Source from the web

The park’s many ponds and lakes are dotted with small islets, and countless bridges span the park’s streams, while charming walkways, some tree-lined, connect this vast expanse of grass, trees, water, rockeries, and buildings. Water is in fact the central theme of the Old Summer Palace. Parks are of course synonymous with trees and green grass; the Old Summer Palace has both in abundance, as well as ponds, lakes, and streams. No wonder then, that the original Old Summer Palace park complex was five times larger than the Forbidden City (the official “reception” palace of Chinese emperors) and eight times larger than Rome’s Vatican City.

History of Yuanmingyuan

The park was first built by Emperor Kangxi as a gift to his fourth son Prince Yinzhen, who later succeeded his father as Emperor Yongzheng. After the death of Emperor Yongzheng, his son, Emperor Qianlong, who, it must be said, was an even more ardent lover of gardens, continued to invest heavily in the Summer Palace gardens. Thus the combined effort of three generations of emperors, beginning with Emperor Kangxi and ending with this grandson, Emperor Qianlong, made of Yuanmingyuan an incomparable gem among royal gardens the world over. As the French writer and humanist, Victor Hugo, speaking of the treasure trove of artworks amassed at the Summer Palace once wrote: “All the treasures of our [European] cathedrals could not equal this fabulous and magnificent oriental museum… “.

In its heyday, Yuanmingyuan consisted of three different gardens: Yuanmingyuan, or the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper (the entire imperial garden complex was itself known as the Garden of Perfect Brightness); Qichunyuan, or the Elegant Spring Garden; and Changchunyuan, or the Garden of Eternal Spring. Five Chinese emperors – Emperors Yongzheng, Qianlong, Jiaqing, Daoguang and Xianfeng – spent prodigious amounts not only of money here, but also of their time, receiving guests, discussing the business of state, or simply relaxing with friends and family. In this regard, the Summer Palace served as an extension of the Forbidden City.

However, as feudal China drew to an end, the Qing Dynasty government’s crises multiplied as well as deepened. Yet, amidst these woes, including a reduced income stream that forced the Qing Dynasty emperor to curtail some of his private hunting and holiday activities, the emperor never ceased to lavish money on Yuanmingyuan, so devoted was he to this national treasure. For example, inside the park’s temples are numerous statues of the Buddha and Boddhisatvas in a variety of poses – and in a variety of materials, such as gold, silver, bronze and jade. Alas, most of the treasures of this once glorious summer palace are gone, having been burned or looted during repeated foreign raids, first in 1860 as part of the second Opium War, and again in 1900 as part of the effort to crush the Boxer Rebellion.

In fact, the debacle over the February 25, 2009 auction, staged by Christie’s in Paris, of two bronze fountainheads nominally belonging to the estate of the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, is directly related to the 1860 looting of the Summer Palace (there was only one imperial summer palace in those days), since the rightful owner of the two fountainheads, one depicting a rabbit, the other a rat, is China. The auction itself was controversial, sparking official protests from the Chinese government, but the outcome of the auction was even more controversial: the winning bidder – a Chinese patriot, it turns out – refused to pay, claiming that the artworks belong to the Chinese people.

Restoration

In China today there is considerable controversy over whether the Old Summer Palace should be restored to its original glory or not. The Chinese people seem to be divided into two mutually exclusive camps on the issue, with one group wishing to keep the park as it is, i.e., as a reminder of past national humiliations, while the other group wishes to draw a line under the past and move forward. The latter group argues that it serves no constructive purpose to hold Beijing’s once glorious Summer Palace hostage to events that occurred over a century ago, and that more could be achieved in returning the park to its original splendor, albeit, sadly lacking in the treasures of which it was looted.

It is an argument that is perhaps echoed in the current American debate over whether “Ground Zero”, the site of the 9/11 attacks that demolished the Twin Towers of New York City, should remain a graveyard-like memorial to the past, or should be rebuilt into something even more spectacular in order to draw a line under the past. A neutral economist might take the view that the best way to avenge the looting of the Summer Palace would be to return the palace to its former glory, thereby making it a first-class tourist destination that could reclaim at least some of the wealth that it lost. It might also strengthen the argument for someday returning the original artworks that this sumptuous palace once housed.

Plan of the Old Summer Palace buildings and gardens — Beijing.
Master plan for Yuanmingyuan in the app, with red lines showing pre-defined visitor route
Photo by Steven Buss

The British and French at their worst? The burning of China’s magnificent Summer Palace

n 1860 Western forces burned the Summer Palace, a wonderful and magnificent building to the northwest of Beijing, China. British and French troops pillaged the palace, and then burned it to the ground in a terrifying act during the Second Opium War. Here, Scarlett Zhu explains what happened and responses to the attack.

The looting of the Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860.

“We call ourselves civilized and them barbarians,” wrote the outraged author, Victor Hugo. “Here is what Civilization has done to Barbarity.”

One of the deepest, unhealed and entrenched historical wounds of China stems from the destruction of the country’s most beautiful palace in 1860 – the burning of the Old Summer Palace by the British and French armies. As Charles George Gordon, a soldier of the force, wrote about his experience, one can “scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places being burnt.”

The palace that once boasted of possessing the most extensive and invaluable art collection of China, became a site of ruins within 3 days in the face of some 3,500 screaming soldiers and burning torches. Dense smoke and ashes eclipsed the sky, marble arches crumbled, and sacred texts were torn apart.  At the heart of this merciless act stood Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, a man who preferred revenge and retaliation to peace talks and compromise. He was also a man highly sensitive to any injustices or humiliation suffered by his own country. Thus, the act was a response to the imprisonment and torture of the delegates sent for a negotiation on the Qing dynasty’s surrender. However, as modern Chinese historians would argue, this was a far-from-satisfactory excuse to justify this performance of wickedness, as before the imprisonment took place, there had already been extensive looting by the French and British soldiers and the burning was only “the final blow”.

The treasures of the Imperial Palace were irresistible and within the reach of the British and French. Officers and men seemed to have been seized with temporary insanity, said one witness; in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit: plunder. The British and the French helped themselves to all the porcelain, the silk and the ancient books – there were an estimated 1.5 million ancient Chinese relics taken away. The extent of this rampant abuse was highlighted even more by the burning of the Emperor’s courtiers, eunuch servants and maids – many estimates place the death toll in the hundreds. This atrocious indifference towards human life inflamed international opposition, notably illustrated by Hugo’s radiant criticisms.

The response to the attack

But there was no significant resistance to the looting, even though many Qing soldiers were in the vicinity – perhaps they had already anticipated the reality of colonial oppression or did not bother themselves with the painful loss of the often-distant imperial family. But the Emperor, XianFeng, was not an unreceptive spectator; in fact, he was said to have vomited blood upon hearing the news.

However, there was evidence to suggest that some soldiers did feel that this was “a wretchedly demoralizing work for an army”. As James M’Ghee, chaplain to the British forces, writes in his narrative, he shall “ever regret the stern but just necessity which laid them in ashes”. He later acknowledged that it was “a sacrifice of all that was most ancient and most beautiful”, yet he could not tear himself away from the palace’s vanished glory. Historian Greg M. Thomas went so far as to argue that the French Ambassador and generals refused to participate this destruction as it “exceeded the military aims of their mission”, and would be an irreparable damage to an important cultural monument.

Nowadays, what is left of the palace are the gigantic marble and stone blocks, which used to be backdrops of the European-style fountains situated in the distant corner of the Imperial gardens for entertaining the Emperor, since those made out of timber and tile did not survive the fires. The remains acted as a somber reminder of the West’s ransack and the East’s “century of humiliation”.

This is more than a story of patriotism, nationalism and universal discontent. History used to teach us that patriotism isn’t history, but rather propaganda in disguise. Yet how could one ignore and omit a historical event so demoralizing and compelling on its own, that it is no longer a matter of morality and dignity, but a matter of seeking the truth, tracing the past and its inseparable link with the present? When considering the savage and blatant destruction of the Old Summer Palace, along with the unspoken hatred of the humiliated and the suppressed, it seems therefore appropriate to end with the cries of the enraged Chinese commoners as they witnessed the worst of mankind’s atrocities: “Kill the foreign devils! Kill the foreign devils!”

Destruction of the Summer Palace

Reference

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