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
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Turkish Law Gives Spy Agency Controversial Powers

Parliament approves legislation to bolster powers of intelligence service, which government claims is necessary to modernize and deal with new threats Turkey faces More

Video Face of American Farmer Changing

Average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population 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.
Face of American Farmer is Changingi
X
Mike Osborne
April 18, 2014
The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid