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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.

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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.

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