Architecture and Xenophobia

Běijīng Summer Palace site used as nationalist propaganda
Part of A Better Guide to Běijīng

In a letter dated 25 November 1861 (of which there’s a copy in the ‘Old’ Summer Palace museum) Victor Hugo compared the Summer Palace en orient to the Parthenon, the pyramids, the Coliseum, and Nôtre-Dame de Paris. ‘Cette merveille,’ he put it simply, ‘a disparu.’

According to him two bandits were responsible, one called England and one called France. Although it was made a little less strident in time for the 2008 Olympics, this tune is still played again and again by the signage at both Summer Palaces. It’s particularly loud at the Yuánmíng Yuán, which is maintained, as one guide puts it, as a ‘site for the education of patriotism for youngsters’. It might just as well be called a ‘site for the encouragement of xenophobia’.

The origins of all this painfully embarrassing behaviour lie mainly in the Chinese government’s continuing insistence on its own highly partial and carefully bowdlerised account of the Anglo-French invasion of 1860. In this there’s little cause and effect: the Chinese are heroic, the foreigners are barbaric, and the destruction merely wanton.

In 2006 Chinese philosophy professor Yuán Wěishí (袁伟时) published an article that suggested that the destruction of the Summer Palace was largely a consequence of Qīng stupidity, which had included a surprise attack launched on foreign envoys in 1859 using troops disguised in civilian clothing. He also asked why a more balanced account of the conflict was available to Hong Kong schoolchildren but not on the mainland.

This was enough to see Freezing Point (冰点, Bīngdiǎn), the newspaper supplement that published the article, suspended ‘for rectification’ and its editor fired.

Instead, the Chinese official view loves to quote French literary giant Hugo, whose novels were translated into Chinese as early as 1903, as if a foreign voice somehow carries more weight than a Chinese one. Hugo rightly condemns the destruction of the palaces, but his turgid descriptions of the site, of the Chinese as supermen, and of the palace as like something from the moon reveal that he was suffering from a bad case of Orientalism. He had in fact never visited China.

The authorities could quote foreigners who were actually present, but that would involve revealing that the palace was destroyed specifically as a punishment for the murder of British and French envoys. Eighteen of them had been imprisoned, some in the palace itself, then tortured to death by the Qīng.

It would also involve revealing that both southern Chinese coolies assisting the foreign armies and local Chinese joined in the looting of their alien rulers’ property.

The French wanted to fight their way into Běijīng and torch the Forbidden City, but the British preferred the destruction of Manchu property rather than further loss of principally Chinese human life.

None of this may excuse the foreign actions, although it does introduce shades of grey into an account the Chinese are determined to present as black and white.

In the run-up to the Běijīng Olympics the rabble-rousing was reduced a little, but it began at the entrance, with the national anthem displayed (in Western musical notation) and the signs full of ‘wǒ guó’ (our country’s) this, that, and the other; continued with reminders of who destroyed the place originally (‘Do not forget the humiliation’); and climaxed with a bronze urn set up near the ruins of the foreign buildings to celebrate the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, seen as wiping out ‘a century of humiliation’.

Foreign visitors have occasionally been accosted by angry Chinese asking, ‘Which country are you from? Well, are you happy with what you did?’ as if anyone of European origin could be held responsible for actions committed by a tiny number of Europeans more than 100 years before they were born.

Although the rhetoric on the signage has been toned down, the ghosts of 1860 are now conjured through the medium of the Internet by China’s so-called fènqīng (short for 愤怒青年, ‘angry youth’), who criticise all but the most aggressive responses in any dispute with foreigners. Hànjiān (汉奸, traitor to the Hàn), a favourite term of theirs for any Chinese attempting to take a more balanced view, is the one also used for the man who is said to have guided the Anglo-French forces to the elaborate gardens of Hǎidiàn in the first place, perhaps sparing Běijīng itself from great destruction.

There have been suggestions from members of the Běijīng Communist Party and Chinese historians of the Qīng that the site should be restored as an education in China’s 18th-century greatness, countered by others that the country should not be allowed to forget that it was once so weak. The logic is completely unidirectional, and memories singularly selective.

It seems from Macartney’s account that even in Qiánlóng’s time the palaces were in poor condition, and the Chinese actively contributed to the continuing destruction of the site after 1860, didn’t even open what was left to the public until the late 1980s, and certainly don’t look after the place now either. During 1999 more than a thousand people living illegally on the site were ejected as part of the pre-1 October clean-up of Běijīng for the celebration of 50 years of communist rule.

To reach the ruins you once passed an ‘Animal World,’ ‘World Primitive Totem Galacy’ [sic], lakes fouled with algae and refuse, others with animal-headed rowing boats, optimistic anglers with primitive equipment, electronic rifle ranges, dodgems, a go-kart track, and buildings that you might have mistaken for temples but which turned out to be souvenir shops, restaurants, or snack bars.

These have now been largely cleared away, but the management stands accused of causing environmental damage by lining the lake bottoms with plastic, and of repeated attempts to erect inaccurate recreations of long-vanished halls without proper clearance from heritage authorities. It has also come to light that sections of the park have been rented to artists and people in the legal profession and that an area of land near the main gate has been used for the construction of luxury apartments. In 2010 there were protests at the creation of an ahistorical temple fair. This site of historic importance is receiving profoundly poor stewardship.

It is never admitted that the foreign troops were in Běijīng to gain the release of some of their envoys and avenge the murder of others. In the words of one who was present:

The burning of the palaces was an act of vengeance which circumstances required. The people themselves were at all times most friendly towards us, and have but little affection for the ruling dynasty. Their rulers alone were answerable for the murder of the prisoners which they had taken. To have required a very large sum of money as a reparation for that crime, would have been a punishment which must eventually have fallen principally upon the people, and their ability to pay any such largely increased demand was highly problematical. To have demanded that those who had actually caused the death of our murdered comrades should be delivered over to us for punishment, would have led only to some few petty and perhaps innocent officials being sent to us, whom it would have been as difficult to convict as it would have been unjust to punish.

Garnet Wolseley, Narrative of the War with China in 1860, London, 1862

In modern times the Chinese response to the deaths of their own envoys in Yugoslavia as a result of US bombing was to smash up the US, British, and Albanian embassies. It seems that what they condemn others for doing in 1860 was still perfectly valid for them to do in 1999, in 2005 when there were similar attacks on Japanese consulates and businesses in a dispute nominally about Japanese history textbooks, and yet again in 2012 over control of the Senkaku islands (钓鱼岛, Diàoyú Dǎo).

In both 1860 and 1900, when foreign forces arrived to lift the Siege of the Legations the Chinese did not sit idly by but joined in the looting with gusto: large quantities of treasures were seen in the nearby village of Hǎidiàn. Dealers in the Chinese (outer) city were eager to sell them to British forces before they departed, and knocked at the door of the British Legation after its establishment in 1861 in order to sell items they claimed were of Summer Palace origin. The Chinese stripped and sold the lead from the Yuán Míng Yuán fountains, chopped down the trees for firewood, smashed up the marble columns to get at the iron clamps inside, and carried off stone, brick, and tile for their own building purposes.

While the Chinese-style buildings at the Yuánmíng Yuán were vastly more extensive than those built by the Jesuits, the Chinese choose to forget that they were also built on the instruction of foreigners — the Manchus who had taken control of China in 1644, and who forced all male Chinese to shave their foreheads and wear their hair in a long pigtail as a perpetual reminder of their subject status. The greatness they want to celebrate was actually that of the foreign rulers of the Great Qīng Empire, as the territory was then known.

When the Western allies attacked, it was during a 250-year period in which the Chinese were largely onlookers in their own affairs. If they insist on talking about humiliation, surely having their country under the complete subjugation of foreigners right into modern times would be the main cause of lament, rather than one particular instance of vandalism.

The great collection of artworks and curiosities looted or confiscated by French and British forces in 1860 was also put together by the Manchus, and consisted of a mixture of Chinese art, tribute from vassal states, and gifts to the Qīng emperors from foreign potentates including items brought from King George III by the embassy of 1793.

On 18 October 2009, the 149th anniversary of the destruction of the palace complex, the Summer Palace administration announced a project to catalogue all the items looted and now in museums overseas. These, the government mouthpiece Beijing Review reported, amounted to some 1.5 million items in more than 2000 museums in 47 countries.

The same report also claimed that the British Museum headed the list, with 230,000 items, whereas in fact the museum’s total Chinese collection from any source is only one tenth of that. Of these, merely 15 items may be of Summer Palace provenance including odd chunks of roof tile of no particular significance. With the exception of a few unique items such as the Jesuit-made bronze heads (see Losing Their Heads), any Palace connection is purely anecdotal, and may at some point simply have been claimed by a seller in an effort to raise the price.

The total number of items is unknowable, since any original catalogue was lost to the flames, most were not unique, and foreign objects included so many French clocks and watches that early French looters sold them for pocket-money prices to latecomer British soldiers. See Where’s the Loot?

On cultural vandalism the Chinese memory is also in general very selective. During the Boxer Rebellion they themselves set fire to the greatest library in Asia, and in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, campaigns destroyed immeasurable quantities of priceless art, ancient temples, and other monuments.

But they are quick to make excuses: ‘We had to build a ring road, so the city wall had to go.’ And on the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, ‘It was ten years of madness. I was against it. I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t there.’ Well, in 1860 during what was comparatively speaking an infinitesimally small although still regrettable act of vandalism, neither were we.

But it seems that nevertheless the Party-approved account of 1860, the only one permitted in mainland China, has persuaded even some foreigners. Or at least, if it suits their purposes, they are willing to appear at anniversary events in Běijīng in order to make public apologies, against all fact and reason, on our behalf.

In 2010 China held a month-long series of events marking the 150th anniversary of the destruction, with media giving the usual account that this was simply a wanton act of foreign imperialist greed, oppression, and looting.

Nevertheless, visitors to the site could view an exhibition of rather more Summer Palace items than the British Museum could muster, including 150 ‘repaired items’ and 85 pieces of stone carving. But these ‘lost treasures’, as the Chinese media called them, had been recovered not from thieving foreigners but from universities, public institutions, and private citizens in China itself.

American Donald Young, President of International Development for a Christian proselytising organisation called Global Partners in Hope, drafted a speech he planned to use at the anniversary ceremony, in which he described 18 October 1860 as ‘one of the most tragic days in all of Chinese history.’

Canadian Gaetan Roy, founder of an organisation called Roads to Reconciliation, also had plans to apologise for the entire period from 1840 to 1900, but partly due to Chinese political correctness intended simply to make a statement of repudiation.

‘Some people said, “Well, if you apologise are we supposed to forgive you? Maybe that’s an issue with the government.” Better to simplify things and use a strong word like “repudiation” because then it doesn’t force anybody to have to do something other than to thank us,’ he said in a telephone interview.

It seemed this ‘reconciliation’ was oddly one-sided.

When asked whether it made sense to apologise for something that happened a century before they were born, both men to referred to a flawed 2006 survey of Chinese sentiment conducted among 500 students at Peking University. Seventy per cent of respondents said that foreign governments should apologise to China for events during the Opium Wars.

If the Chinese are upset, the two men argued, then we need to apologise. That the Chinese can only repeat the incomplete and sometimes utterly mendacious account they’ve been given, and are thus not actually upset at the truth, is not thought relevant. Very few Chinese are aware, for instance, of the circumstances that brought foreign forces to the capital or their intention to hurt the Manchus rather than the Chinese.

These arguments didn’t impress Mr. Young. ‘You can’t equate what happened in the pillage of that garden and all the artefacts that were there with the 18 people that died,’ he says. Indeed you cannot, unless you believe things are more important than human lives.

‘Historical narrative is not really an issue for us,’ said Mr. Roy.

Mr. Young also refused to consider whether the nationwide destruction of historic buildings and cultural artefacts during the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, or the deaths of around 40 million people in the earlier Great Leap Forward campaign, might be better candidates for the title of ‘most tragic’ event in his speech.

His praise for China’s then-President Hú Jǐntáo was lavish, stressing Hú’s desire for ‘harmony’ without seeming to understand what is meant by a word now much lampooned in China, namely the prevention of any opposition to Party rule using censorship, intimidation, imprisonment, or violence as necessary.

‘I’m not about to say anything critical of the government,’ he stressed. ‘I respect [Hú] very highly, and I believe he’s doing his best.’

This single-minded support without reference to China’s realities was chilling, and recalled Victor Hugo’s equally uncritical response at the time of the Palace’s demise, which Mr. Roy likes to misquote.

Although reviling the French for their part in the destruction and continued possession of Summer Palace loot, the Chinese unveiled a bust of Hugo on the anniversary itself.

Apparently the word of foreigners continues to carry extra weight if only on those occasions when it uncritically supports the official line. But neither Mr. Roy nor Mr. Young accepted they might simply be party to propaganda efforts aimed at a domestic audience.

Mr. Young wanted to see the complex no longer used as a ‘centre of hate’ but as a place for peace and rest. Mr. Roy hoped to bring significant political, cultural, religious, and military figures to China in 2011 or 2012 for further self-abasement, and to return a single looted item, but there are no reports that this occurred. He declined to name anyone involved, or the source of the item in question.

About a week before the 2010 anniversary neither man seemed clear as to what exactly would happen or where. In the end most of their events were cancelled at the last moment — not that it had ever really looked likely that they would be permitted — and they appeared to have been led a merry dance by their ‘local adviser’. Mr. Young stayed in the US, and Mr. Roy merely said that one representative of Roads to Reconciliation spoke at the site, although he did not provide information on who that was, whether an apology was made, or if there was any response.

Mr. Roy’s stated aim had been to use the historic date to introduce his larger project to the media, but while the events were widely reported, and the usual single-mindedly anti-foreign narrative supplied, mention of any apology, except a passing reference in one headline, was humiliatingly absent.

‘People like yourself who’ve followed the events of the past weeks will understand,’ he remarked opaquely by email.

Thoughts of ‘Peace, cooperation, and harmony’, supposedly the theme of the commemorations, seemed present in one side only.

The Chinese would anyway be reluctant to rewrite the history books to provide a more balanced account, and the inability of those who apologise to speak for anyone but themselves also provides a useful excuse to avoid ever considering the matter closed.

As Mr. Roy himself put it, ‘The advantage of repudiation is that it’s not like apologising and apologising again. You can always repudiate several times.’

He might do so on an annual basis, yet still remain ignored. The Summer Palace narrative is just too useful a tool for exhorting nationalism to be relinquished.

The Chinese commemorations included nightly performances through the summer of an imaginary version of events in which heroic villages fought off the invading foreigners with the traditional cries of ‘Kill! Kill!’. The foreigners were depicted as stupid, comic figures, and played by Chinese dwarves in yellow wigs.

So much for reconciliation.

Next in Běijīng Suburbs and Beyond: Introduction to the Great Wall
Previously: ‘Old’ Summer Palace
Main Index of A Better Guide to Beijing.

For discussion of China travel, see The Oriental-List.