Thursday, 17 March 2011

Travels with Li Dongni – Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), Beijing, China (April 2009)

A lesson from history or a lesson in history?

As a museum professional, you might imagine that I have more than a passing interest in history – and you’d be right.  This travel post will encroach on that interest, as Yuanmingyuan in Beijing provokes strong feelings in me about the way history is presented and can be abused for political gain.

I would like to make something clear from the start though, before I’m accused of being myopic in my views.  The burning of the Summer Palace in 1860 by British and French forces was an act which has denied the world a unique architectural treasure.  It was condemned by many at the time and deservedly so.

But…  But...  There is something about the site today, the way the story of the events of 1860 is told, that strikes to the heart of the way modern China sees itself.  For while the basic events (the burning and looting) are real, the way that story is officially told in China is biased, inaccurate and used for pure nationalistic propaganda.  It is ‘bad history’, and as such should be condemned by those of us who value academic integrity and decry the misappropriation of historical events for such purposes.

This post will therefore have two main thrusts – one detailing my experience of being a tourist visiting the site as I would normally write for one of these travel posts, the other giving my (naturally subjective) views on the way the history of the site is being exploited.

I will leave politics aside for the moment, then, and turn to describing the site itself, which is in the northwest of Beijing.  Actually, there are two summer palaces in Beijing, which might cause some confusion.  The one I’m talking about here is ‘Yuanmingyuan’ (圆明园), rather than the nearby ‘Yiheyuan’ (颐和园), which I may write about in a future post.

Although known as the Summer Palace, the name Yuanmingyuan in Chinese actually means ‘Gardens of Perfect Brightness’, a much more appealing title if you ask me.  Construction began in AD1707 under the Emperor Kangxi and the gardens were greatly expanded in AD1725 under his son Yongzheng and his grandson Qianlong.

There were actually three gardens – the Garden of Perfect Brightness itself, and adjoining it the Garden of Eternal Spring (‘Changchunyuan’ 长春园) and the Elegant Spring garden (‘Qichunyuan’ 绮春园).  Together they covered an area of 860 acres - 5 times the size of the Forbidden City.  In the grounds were hundreds of halls, pavilions and temples containing thousands of artworks and surrounded by hills, lakes and rock formations.  Some of the palaces were in European style – built for the Qianlong Emperor to satisfy his taste for the exotic.  These buildings get much press today but it is easy to overestimate their quantity, mainly because their stone construction aided their survival.  95% of the buildings were of Chinese style, alongside other examples of Tibetan and Mongol architecture – this was a private pleasure park on a mammoth scale.

After getting off the packed bus from central Beijing, the first view of the site was a very warm and welcoming fan in the centre of a floral display

Once inside, the scale of the site becomes apparent, and a good few hours are required to have even the most cursory wander around.  On a nice, sunny day such as we had, however, this is far from a chore.  The lakes with little walkways, bridges and islands are absolutely charming, and the frogs were far and away the noisiest I have ever encountered!

As always, the best way to illustrate a site such as this is with pictures so I’ll let the following images of the ruins, lakes and pavilions speak for themselves.

I would like to turn now to the less savoury aspects of this post – the reason the palace is in ruins and the way that story is being presented to the modern Chinese audience, and Chinese schoolchildren from primary school onwards, as a key event in the ‘Century of Humiliation’.

One thing you notice as you walk around is that virtually every interpretation panel makes some reference to the 1860 burning by the British and French forces.  Above any story of its artistic content, construction, working life or the characters who lived or worked there, the destruction of the palace has become its overriding primary narrative.  If I were a cynic I’d go as far as to suggest that the ruins were deliberately left in an untidy manner, maybe even made more so, to accentuate this point.  In fact, I came across a fascinating comment left on the ‘The China Beat’ blog which supports these thoughts.  Obviously, anonymous internet comments cannot be taken as objective fact, but it is certainly an interesting tale:

I was living in 101 middle school about 11 years ago. If you are not aware, that school is next to yuanmingyuan. Anyway, for most of the year the western side of YMY was closed. Why? Well, they were busy bringing in fake ruins to place around the northern side of the lake. Yes, there are real ruins in the ‘park’ but the ones around the ‘west’ lake are not so authentic. I guess they were just adding some color to history.

There are some additional facts to bring in here as well.  Firstly, the palace was not completely destroyed by the fire, as is usually suggested in official versions.  In fact, the site was still deemed habitable after the fire, and it was one location suggested for the Allied army headquarters.  The idea was rejected, but the continued and greater ruination of the site was actually due to the removal of stone to build the ‘new summer palace’ nearby, and in the 1930’s when the site was used as a quarry by locals.  Once again, this later ruination is not recounted on the site, and the total destruction is presented to the visitor as the act of the Allied forces.  In addition, the palace that the Allied army entered was itself in far from perfect condition.  There are reports of the whole place being in unkempt condition for years beforehand and the waterworks and fountains being in disrepair, which I’ll return to later.

So, whether any artificial ‘enhanced ruination’ is being carried out or not, and whatever the state of the palace before and after 1860, the Chinese authorities are keen to highlight the fact that the Allied forces burned and looted the palace (which they undoubtedly did), but is less willing to discuss the reasons why – that the burning was carried out as retaliation for the treatment by Chinese officials of two British diplomats and their accompanying journalists and guards who were sent to discuss a truce in the second Opium War.  The group were imprisoned for two weeks, tortured and 20 of the 25 men murdered - their bodies barely recognisable when recovered.  An account of their capture was published by Lieutenant-Colonel Wolesley (and is available here).  One of the first hand accounts that survive of the incident was written by Henry Brougham Loch, a personal secretary to Lord Elgin and one of the surviving prisoners (available here).

Henry Brougham Loch
Towards the end of his incarceration, Loch thinks that he and the few remaining prisoners are to be imminently executed, and writes, “As we had been accustomed to look for death at any hour, we felt almost relief that our fate was now decided; we knew we were beyond all human aid; that we had done all we honourably could to warn the Chinese government of the danger of their conduct; and having failed, we now only hoped we should be able to face the cruel death that was in store for us, bravely together”.

An Imperial execution order had been issued just before the movements of the Allied armies forced a release of the surviving prisoners.  Loch would later be told by Chinese officials that the execution order arrived at the prison just 15 minutes after their release.

Loch recounts the evidence given by Jawalla Singh, another of the survivors, who describes the prisoners “lying face down with hands and feet tied behind the back … for three days”.  About a prisoner called Lieutenant Anderson he writes, “before his death his nails and fingers burst from the tightness of the cords, and mortification set in, and the bones of the wrists were exposed – while he was alive, worms were generated in his wounds, and ate into, and crawled over his body.”  

Another survivor, Burghel Singh, describes the fate of a journalist from ‘The Times’, “Mr Bowlby died the second day after we arrived.  He died from maggots forming in his wrists ... his body remained there nearly three days, and the next day it was tied to a crossbeam and thrown over the wall to be eaten by the dogs and pigs”

The purpose of my providing such quotations is not to argue that the actions taken at Yuanmingyuan were justified, but to evidence that the events that occurred there were not random acts of vindictive barbarism committed on a whim, as the official story suggests.  Even though Loch is writing with his own biases and agenda, and the actions of the westerners were no doubt arrogant in the extreme, these are important elements of the overall story, which should be considered even if they are to be dismissed.  If the interpretation offered an argued rebuttal of the Allied version of events, then fine – such debate is the cornerstone of historical research.  To simply ignore them as not fitting the agreed narrative of hate is to commit a crime against history.

Loch continues, “The bodies which had been delivered, so clearly demonstrated the cruelties which had been inflicted, that Lord Elgin at once notified to Prince Kung that he was too horrified by what had occurred to hold further communication with a government guilty of such deeds of treachery and bloodshed, until some great punishment inflicted upon the Emperor and the governing classes had made apparent to the whole Empire and the world, the detestation with which the Allies viewed such content.”

So we see that it was decided that the Chinese government should be punished.  The choice of the summer palace for this punishment was far from random.  The modern Chinese government has used the incident as a vehicle for nationalist propaganda – an example of the vicious invader brutally attacking the pride of the average Chinese citizen by destroying such an icon of Chinese culture. 

A Chinese school textbook from the 1990s reads,

“The Anglo-French forces were savage and dangerous, bullying and arrogant in the extreme.  Not only were their actions an affront to the timid and corrupt Qing Court, they were also an insult to the industrious and courageous Chinese people.  This was a most outrageous insult and humiliation to the Chinese race.”

Of course, the trouble with this is that the palace was chosen precisely because that was not the case.  The summer palace was an Imperial playground - as forbidden and mysterious to the average Chinese person as the Forbidden City itself.  It was chosen as a symbol of Manchu Imperial power – an Imperial dynasty that was itself not Chinese and practiced discrimination against the Chinese population.  The destruction of the summer palace was designed to reassure the Chinese people that the punishment was being directed specifically at the Imperial family and their administration, not at the people themselves (as Loch’s quotes above and below demonstrate).  It was also where the prisoners were first taken, and their abuses began.

Loch writes of the fateful decision,

“After anxious deliberation, Lord Elgin decided to request the Commander in Chief to take the requisite steps for the destruction of the Emperor’s palace of Yuanmingyuan.  He considered it necessary to mark in a manner that could not soon be forgotten the punishment awarded for an act of treachery so gross as that which had characterised the Emperor’s policy, and that had resulted in the murder of so many officers and men.  The implication of the Emperor and the Chinese government in the treatment of the prisoners was proved by De Normann and the others having been taken in the first instance to Yuanmingyuan, and that there had commenced the ill-usage which resulted in their deaths.  Several articles of their clothing were found in the rooms adjoining the Hall of Audience, and nearly all our horses and saddles were recovered from the Royal stables.  But while Lord Elgin was desirous of making the punishment to be inflicted apparent to the whole Chinese Empire, and one which could not be glossed over or concealed, it was his anxious wish to make it fall only on the Emperor who had been acquainted with, and was responsible for the commission of the crime … It was also felt that no money indemnity could compensate for the insult inflicted; and, moreover, if an indemnity had been enforced, that it would have fallen on the people and not on the Emperor or mandarin classes … [a proclamation was published] in Chinese, copies of which were affixed on all the buildings and walls in the neighbourhood … of Yuanmingyuan, to the effect ‘that no individual, however exalted, could escape from the responsibility and punishment which must always follow the commission of acts of falsehood and deceit; that Yuanmingyuan would be burnt on the 18th, as a punishment inflicted on the Emperor for the violation of his word, and the act of treachery to a flag of truce; that as the people were not concerned in these acts no harm would befall them, but the Imperial government alone would be held responsible.

Accompanying the burning, of course, was looting.  As I stated at the start of this post, I am not for even a second looking to defend the colonial looting of artefacts in this or any other incident.  The looting was even condemned at the time, by Victor Hugo and others.  What I will decry though, is the partial and biased story that has been allowed to build up, once again creating a bogeyman figure of the British and French forces and not viewing the historical facts objectively or accepting the role of the Chinese in the incident.

The big problem is that alongside the British and French soldiers carrying armfuls of Imperial treasure away (to be sold at large auctions soon after to ensure that the value of the booty was evenly distributed between officers and men), hundreds of local Chinese swarmed into the palace and began their own looting.  Because of the chaos at the time, no-one is now sure who took what, and by what source anything entered the antiquities market.  It will certainly be true that items taken by Chinese looters will have been sold and found their way into collections all over the world (no doubt even Chinese ones).  In addition, the looting was not a one-off event.  Chinese looting of the site continued for many years afterwards, right up until the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.  The picture is one big confusing mess, and to lay the blame solely on the western powers on one day in 1860 is frankly rather ridiculous.

An important example of such confusion is the now infamous bronze animal heads from the ‘zodiac fountain’.  An outcry was caused a few years ago when two heads came up for auction in Paris.  China demanded its property to be returned, but the owner and auction house refused.  An anonymous Chinese bidder won the auction, then refused to pay.  This was all based on the assumption that the heads were taken by French soldiers in 1860.  The trouble is that there is no proof of this being the case – it is just one possibility.

It never seems to be mentioned that the fountain was not even working in 1860.  It had been dismantled 20 years earlier by an Empress of the Daoguang Emperor (reigned 1820-1850).  An inventory of the site taken before 1860 did not list the heads as being at the palace, and neither did Lieutenant-Colonel Wolseley in his detailed description of the palace and its ornaments.  They also do not appear on an 1880 inventory of the site.  The truth is that no-one knows where the heads were in 1860 or how and when they left China.  Now, it may well be that they were stolen in 1860 by French soldiers and illicitly traded, but without proof of this they can hardly be used as the symbol of western arrogance in China that some people want to make them out to be - they could just have easily been removed as the product of Chinese looting or taken from an entirely different place altogether at a different time.

The reason that such simple interpretations of the burning and looting are presented should be obvious – it benefits the Chinese authorities to give the people a bogeyman.  An ‘other’ who they must stand strong and united against.  An external evil which overrides any internal domestic issues.  Even though the incident happened 150 years ago and the rest of the world has moved on politically, culturally and ethically, this bogeyman is still ingrained on the Chinese psyche.  Far from moving on, the interpretation of sites like this is being used to actively stoke such feelings in modern Chinese society.  The ideal aim of the study of history is to be objective (however difficult that ideal may be) - it should not be deliberately misinterpreted for political capital.

One perfect example of this is the annual performances that take place on the site – portraying clumsy, big nosed foreign soldiers being tricked, embarrassed and beaten by the clever and acrobatic Chinese peasants.  I’m sure the Chinese government would be the first to express outrage and cry foul if any other nation dared to present the Chinese in such a manner - even if the events were true, let alone turned into such a strange mockery of the actual event.

However, despite feeling that I should have been walking around the palace wearing a sandwich board bearing the words ‘I apologise unreservedly for what my forebears did’ (which I would do, if asked), I am pleased to say I managed to avoid being tricked, embarrassed or beaten by any vengeful Chinese.  Hopefully, the modern, worldly Chinese citizen has managed to dispel the bogeyman propaganda after all and isn’t overly convinced by the ‘official’ story.  Or maybe they really just don’t care about the history and merely want to stroll around a very pleasant park – which if you’re ever in Beijing I recommend you do as well.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog. Enjoyed reading all these iinteresting facts and views on your trips.