The Burning of the Yuanmingyuan: 150 Years Later

150 years ago this month, troops from an Anglo-French expedition torched the imperial gardens located in Northwest Beijing.  The multiplicity of meanings associated with the site and the complicated circumstances of its destruction make for fascinating history as well as an opportunity for the CCP's educational minions to leech that history of any real substance -- other than as a crude device to teach 'patriotism.'

Author, scholar and fellow IES faculty member Sheila Melvin has an excellent piece in last week's New York Times discussing the history of the Yuanmingyuan.  She writes:

On the low end of the scale was a free performance called “The Legend of Yuanmingyuan,” which was held weekend evenings on the Yuanmingyuan grounds last summer. Staged by the Beijing Dragon in the Sky Shadow Puppet Troupe and considered “patriotic education” for children, the show alternated shadow puppets and costumed dwarfs in a reenactment that saw invading troops bravely staved off by local villagers using kung fu and bayonets. Foreigners — played by dwarfs wearing curly yellow-wool wigs — were depicted as venal and stupid barbarians who could not even speak their own languages. Eager to aid the emperor, the brave Chinese villagers repeatedly shouted, “Kill the foreign devils! Kill the foreign devils!”

At the other end of the spectrum is the exhibition “Disturbed Dreams in the Ruins of the Garden,” which showcases a stunning collection of photographs taken by the German photographer Ernst Ohlmer in 1873. The 72 images in “Disturbed Dreams” — which was shown at the Beijing World Art Museum over the summer and will be featured at the Shanghai Art Museum for six months in 2011 — were made from 12 large glass negatives tracked down and purchased by Qin Feng, a Taiwan-born journalist and collector.

Believed to be the earliest Yuanmingyuan photos in existence, the images lovingly depict the “Western-style palaces” designed by the Jesuit missionaries Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining) and Michel Benoit (Jiang Youren).

The problem with choosing symbols for their political potency is that the things and places and people politicians choose already come freighted with baggage, meanings, and symbolic values that may be at odds with the ideology political leaders seek to espouse.

Consider this:

  • Yuanmingyuan was burned in a wanton display of power by the Anglo-French expedition of 1860, but most of the palace was torn down over time as the stones and brick were carted away by local farmers seeking a ready supply of cheap building materials.
  • The main ruins, those of the "Western Style Palaces" and the ones well known around China as the symbol of the West's 'vicious attack' on China and Chinese culture, were designed by two Jesuit priests as a pleasure garden for the Manchu rulers who had conquered Ming China and made it the centerpiece of their expanding Eurasian empire.
  • These two Jesuit priests respected the Qing emperors and appreciated Chinese civilization enough that they spent most of their lives in the service of the court even as the Vatican and other Catholic orders were sharply critical of the cozy nature of this arrangement.
  • The European and American forces invaded Beijing to conclude a war declared on the most bogus pretext of any 19th-century military adventure -- and that includes The Maine in Havana harbor.
  • As with other armed conflicts between the Qing and the North Atlantic powers in the 19th century, the inability of key members of the court to realize that no matter how detestable the enemy, continuing to engage militarily only compounded the damages of defeat.
  • The British and French troops (and Americans, and Russians, and quite a few local Chinese farmers) carted away tons of precious artifacts and a few family pets from the Yuanmingyuan in accordance with internationally accepted 'law' regarding the spoils of war before torching the place.  If there was a conflict between local Chinese and the foreign invaders, it was mostly over who could grab the most loot.
  • The French initially wanted to burn the Forbidden City, but the British, fearing that in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion such an act would finish the dynasty and not wanting to face either a) a Taiping-ruled empire or b) a 'break it, you buy it' situation which would mean administering yet ANOTHER continent-sized Asian colony only three years removed from the Sepoy Mutiny, decided to focus their wrath on what the emperor loved most -- his pleasure gardens in the northwest part of Beijing.

The decision to wage war against the Qing Empire following the Arrow Incident of 1856 was one of the most savage and blatant examples of the North Atlantic imperialist powers attempting to force concessions from the Qing Empire.  Even as English writers trumpeted the need to bring China into the 'comity of nations' based on the rules of equality and national sovereignty, the imperialist powers sought to use military force to compel the Qing court to sign treaties which further eroded Qing sovereignty.

This past June I did a little series on this blog about History, Violence, and Memory.  Writing about the Boxer Uprising and the subsequent foreign invasion of 1900, I argued that including nuance and complexity in the story of Yuanmingyuan doesn't change one bit the broader theme of the destructive effects of imperialism in China, unless of course your goal isn't to teach history but to 'teach patriotism.'

Even if you add all of these messy details to the textbook narrative, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the basic premise that the foreign powers were aggressive, arrogant, and willing to use force to get what they wanted no matter how unreasonable the demand with the inevitable result that this considerable amount of resentment and hostility was bound to erupt into violence (as it did many times throughout the 19th century) culminating in the large-scale bloodshed of 1900.

So what if the Boxers lacked “nationalist” consciousness, or if there were killings and atrocities on both sides, or that most of the provincial officials thought that the Qing decision to “declare war” was so daft they completely ignored several imperial decrees and put their offices (if not possibly more) in peril?

I’ve read that kids who are too protected from germs, who grow up in homes scrubbed and re-scrubbed in antiseptics and disinfectants, are actually more likely to get sick and develop allergies than the kids who play outside in the dirt every day.  Apparently it has something to do with exposure to all kinds of things, messy things, and so developing the bodies ability to handle the presence of mess.

History used to teach patriotism isn't history, it's propaganda pure and simple.  Why bother when the story is so compelling on its own as to defy the crude attempts to paint it purely in black and white?  When told with all the colors in the historian's palette, there is enough to justify outrage and even more to stimulate some actual critical thinking about the past and its relationship to our lives in the present.