Atoning for imperial sins
Few Britons know about the 1860 destruction of the Peking Summer Palace at the end of the Second Opium War but their more numerous Chinese counterparts know all about it and it resonates deeply with them.
When Britain’s new political leaders talk about forging new business ties with non-EU countries, it might be wise for them to research how the British are regarded overseas and how previous attempts to establish preferable trading agreements are remembered elsewhere.
To coincide with the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, a Chinese state-funded, anti-colonial movie called “The Opium War” was released. It fitted into a wider, official narrative driven by a persecution complex.
Rather than establishing itself as a new international trading powerhouse, when the UK leaves the shelter of the EU and its vast market it will be in a weak bargaining position with countries that owe it no favours.
While the British Museum is full of the spoils of imperial conquest, the 1860 destruction of Peking Summer Place – Yuan Ming Yuan in Chinese meaning Garden of Perfect Brightness – echoes loudly through history because of China’s growing economic clout. It is a story that has been too quickly forgotten in Britain.
The Qing emperors lived and ruled from the palace, a grand complex of buildings and gardens.
The Eighth Earl of Elgin, the son of the Lord Elgin who removed the controversial Parthenon Marbles, ordered that Peking’s treasures be looted and then had the Anglo-French force set the complex on fire.
“[T]hey seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity,’ wrote Deputy-Assistant Quartermaster General Garnet Wolseley, adding “in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit, which was plunder, plunder”.
Today Beijing claims about 1.5 million items were taken. The BBC’s Chris Bowlby argues: “The palace’s fate is bitterly resented in Chinese minds and constantly resurfaces in Chinese popular films, angry social media debates and furious rows about international art sales. And it has left a controversial legacy in British art collections – royal, military, private – full of looted objects.”
But this anger at Britain’s imperial legacy is almost never mentioned in the UK itself.
Elgin wrote: “There was not a room I saw in which half the things had not been taken away or broken in pieces.”
Even the empress’s Pekingese dog was presented to Queen Victoria, renamed “Looty” and lived for 11 more years.
The Summer Palace, built in the 18th and early 19th century, was described by Victor Hugo as a “masterpiece”, a “dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace”.
The colonial expedition destroyed the palace in retaliation for the Qing refusal to allow European embassies inside Peking and after the brutal torture and execution of 20 European and Indian prisoners. Elgin’s justification for the order is, however, dismissed as irrelevant in contemporary China.
The British, armed with the new Armstrong gun, swept aside imperial opposition as they approached Peking and Elgin sent a delegation escorted by Indian troops to accept the Chinese surrender.
At the same time, the Europeans reached the Summer Palace and began to help themselves to some of its riches. Loot was regarded as part of military pay and sometimes used to compensate grieving relatives. The destruction might have ended there had not the news arrived of most of the delegation’s torture and death.
“For three days the men were tied up, and for three days their bandages were soaked with water so that they would become tighter and tighter,” writes historian Vera Schwarcz. “Every time they begged for water their mouths would be filled with dirt.” Their corpses were hardly recognisable.
In retaliation, the soldiers burned libraries, rare books, temples, halls, pavilions, the Jade Fountain Park and the vast audience hall with its marble floor. More than 4,000 men reportedly spent three days destroying the site.
Elgin later showed remorse: “Plundering and devastating a place like this is bad enough but what is worst is the waste and breakage.” He, however, added: “It was the Emperor’s favourite residence, and its destruction could not fail to be a blow to his pride as well as his feelings.”
Today large numbers of Chinese visitors on government-sponsored “patriotic education” programmes inspect the piles of scorched masonry and overgrown lakes that are left.
Treasures were auctioned and sent to British museums and labelled “From the Summer Palace of the Emperor of China” to demonstrate Britain’s increasingly global dominance.
A still from China’s state-funded 1997 movie, “The Opium War”. Source: YouTube
The Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham in Kent has an extensive collection of loot, including a large imperial couch with dragon carvings. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has one of the most comprehensive western collections of Chinese art, including fishbowls, a filigree headdress with blue feathers and pearls, jade vases and silk robes.
In recent years auctioneers at Woolley & Wallis sold a Qing dynasty imperial gilt container, which carried the inscription “Loot from the Summer Palace, Pekin, Oct. 1860”.
This history was forgotten in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when the Red Guards actively destroyed remnants of the imperial past.
But since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s rulers have tried to reinforce their authority by encouraging patriotism and teaching citizens that only a strong, central government can prevent a repeat of the 19th-century subjugation. The Summer Palace ruins have since become the focal point for this patriotic rival.
The Opium Wars were fought to establish uneven trade agreements with China.
Now, as it looks for new relationships with the rest of the world, Britain needs to realise that its history is not neutral and rising powers overseas have scores to settle.
Britain talks about establishing itself as a new Singapore but it is more likely to become a weakened former power, left defenceless without allies as rivals help themselves to its riches: like 19th-century China.
The victorious state entry of Lord Elgin into Peking in 1860. Source: Wikimedia
(TOP) Looting of the Peking Summer Palace or Yuan Ming Yuan by Anglo-French forces in 1860. Source: Wikimedia