News / Europe

150 Years Later, Destruction of Beijing's Summer Palace Still Inspires Patriotism

Chinese tourists walk among the marble ruins of the western palace complex inside the Yuanming Yuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing.
Chinese tourists walk among the marble ruins of the western palace complex inside the Yuanming Yuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace, in Beijing.

Multimedia

Audio
Alison Klayman

This week marks the 150th anniversary of the destruction of Beijing's Old Summer Palace, by French and British soldiers in the Second Opium War. Although it remains a minor event in history books in Britain and France, the destruction of the Yuanming Yuan is described in Chinese history texts as a key event in the country's "100 years of humiliation," and a cautionary tale of what can befall China if it bows to Western influence.

Once an imperial garden, today Yuanming Yuan is open to the public as a park

The Yuanming Yuan is now a park visited by thousands of Chinese each year. A succession of Qing dynasty emperors built the 290-hectare palace complex beginning in 1707.

Chinese visitors enjoy snacks at this year's Spring Festival fair at the Yuanming Yuan park
Chinese visitors enjoy snacks at this year's Spring Festival fair at the Yuanming Yuan park

More than 90 percent of the original buildings did not survive the blaze that British and French soldiers set on October 18, 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War. Some of the buildings were later rebuilt, but most of the complex today is an open park, with vast stretches of greenery during Beijing's muggy summers, and frozen lakes in the winter.

The real tourist attraction is a small area of marble ruins. These are the remains of a complex of European-style palaces built with help from Catholic priests from Europe.

Many Chinese see the ruins as an open wound, a 150-year-old crime scene. A college student visiting from Inner Mongolia says he almost burst into tears when he arrived.

He says the park symbolizes the humiliation of China being bullied by foreign countries, and serves as a lesson for the country to be stronger.

Historian Jeremiah Jenne, who lives in Beijing, says it is not surprising that many Chinese students are intimate with the park's history. He says the Communist Party designs history texts to emphasize stories of foreign imperialism, like the Yuanming Yuan.

"The Communist Party's basic claim to legitimacy has always been that they've rescued the country from the twin evils of feudalism and foreign imperialism,"  he said. "So any representations of imperialism, things like the Yuanming Yuan ruins or memories of the Opium Wars, are very important to keep fresh."

After the Second Opium War, Western powers gradually forced the Chinese government to grant them more access to the country, including control of port cities such as Shanghai. The British and Portuguese much earlier had taken control of Hong Kong and Macau on the southern coasts.

It was not until the Communist Party won the country's civil war in 1949 that those agreements ended. And in the 1990s, Hong Kong and Macau returned to Beijing's control.

These days, the Yuanming Yuan is growing in popularity. Park administrators say attendance jumped 77 percent in the first half of 2009.

The fate of the bronzes

The increase began after extensive media coverage in China of the auction of two bronze heads that came from a Western-style fountain in the Yuanming Yuan. The auction in February 2009 sold art works once owned by French designer Yves St. Laurent in Paris.

The voices of Chinese bloggers and the Foreign Ministry rose in unison, they wanted the bronzes - the heads of animals from the Chinese zodiac - back. Liu Yang led a group who tried to halt the auction in a French court.

Yang says if all of the Yuanming Yuan's zodiac statues are returned to China, it would be a good symbol of revival for the Chinese country and people.

They lost the lawsuit, but the winning bidder, also from China, did not pay the money for the bronzes, so they remain in France.

To many in China, the auction was an inflammatory reminder of the events of 1860. Chinese Central Television caught on to the public mood and produced a TV show in which a team went to American museums in search of treasures from the Yuanming Yuan.

But not all Chinese think the events of 1860 are worth so much attention. Critics of the government, like artist Ai Weiwei, say the Communist Party only allows people to protest these kinds of issues because it bolsters nationalism.

"They never really care about culture. This is the nature of a communist, to destroy the old world, to rebuild a new one," Weiwei said.

Yet 150 years later, the looting and destruction of the Yuanming Yuan holds meaning for people in China. With domestic tourism on the rise, there has been renewed discussion about rebuilding parts of the palace and turning the Yuanming Yuan into a theme park.

You May Like

Anti-Terror Drills Highlight China’s Push Into Central Asia

China, Russia, several central Asian countries wrap up massive anti terrorism military drills in Inner Mongolia More

Erdogan’s First Step: Secure More Power in New Role in Turkey

Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey's first popularly elected president on Thursday; he picked former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu as PM More

Pakistan Army Fails to Break Political Deadlock

PM Sharif claims he didn't ask army to defuse crisis; military rejects claim More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assaulti
X
Daniel Schearf
August 29, 2014 9:30 PM
After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.

AppleAndroid