China's Age of Fragility: As China Reclaims Its Central Role in the World, Robert Bickers Appeals to Britons and Others in the West to Take Account of the Legacy Left by the Country's Difficult 19th Century

By Bickers, Robert | History Today, March 2011 | Go to article overview

China's Age of Fragility: As China Reclaims Its Central Role in the World, Robert Bickers Appeals to Britons and Others in the West to Take Account of the Legacy Left by the Country's Difficult 19th Century


Bickers, Robert, History Today


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One recent late November I took a stroll through the grounds of the Yuanmingyuan, the 'Old Summer Palace', just north of the Peking University campus in the north-west corner of that sprawling city. This one is a big site, forested and landscaped, and generally lacks the crowds of tourists that converge on the new Summer Palace, the Yiheyuan complex, located a mile to the west, which surrounds the vast Kunming Lake. The Yuanmingyuan is a complex of gardens, lakes and islands built during the 18th century as a private resort for the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty. It is a beautiful spot, perfect for escape on a chilly morning from the bustle of the city, its relative quietness punctuated only by the golf carts carrying visitors around and shouts from children who visit in groups with their schools and of the teachers directing them around. As I paused to admire one of the views I realised that the red-scarved children close by me were assembling in ranks, with two of their number, a boy and a girl both around 12 years old, getting ready to address a video camera that had been placed ready on a tripod. Filming began and the children stood to attention. 'Young friends,' declaimed the boy, gesturing behind him, 'this site was burned down by the British and French imperialists in 1860.' The camera turned to take in the vista behind him. The boy and girl carried on with the presentation, but my presence was making the children and some of their accompanying adults a little uncomfortable, so I wandered on.

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A bitter episode

I had witnessed 'Patriotic Education' in action and at one of the totemic sites of modern Chinese nationalism, for the Yuanmingyuan was indeed destroyed by the Allied armies which invaded northern China in 1860 and marched on the imperial capital to end the Second Opium War, a conflict also known as the Arrow War. This episode of Chinese history had begun almost four years earlier, sparked by an Anglo-Chinese confrontation over a ship called the Arrow in the harbour at Canton in China's far south. Warhungry--there is no better term for them--British officials on the spot seized the opportunity to exacerbate the dispute in a bid to get the treaties which had partially opened China to British trade revised in their favour. They thought the British position as it stood under the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing was humiliating. Interrupted by the 1857 Indian Mutiny and by a British defeat at the Dagu Forts in north China in summer 1859, the war had lumbered on into 1860. At the gates of the capital, angered by the seizure and maltreatment of some two dozen British, French and Indian personnel, some of whom had died in captivity and some of whom thought they had been taken when under a flag of truce, the British plenipotentiary Lord Elgin (1811-63) insisted on a retribution targeted precisely and personally at the ruling Xianfeng emperor, Yizhu (1831-61). The Chinese people would be spared pain, Elgin believed, and only the emperor's pleasure dome would be destroyed. The French demurred, arguing that the Imperial Palace--the Forbidden City- should be destroyed instead, but Elgin got his way and the complex was put to the torch on October 18th, 1860.

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'A pang of sorrow seizes upon you,' recalled one participant in the destruction; 'You cannot help it, no eye will ever again gaze upon those buildings which have been doubtless the admiration of ages.' But then he remembered that some of the possessions of the European captives had been found there and turned to 'gaze with satisfaction on the ruin'. It was hard work, reported Colonel Charles Gordon (1833-85), of later Khartoum fame; 'wretchedly demoralising work' for the troops were 'wild for plunder; but had little time for pillage and burned knowing they were turning treasure into smoke. It is hardly a glorious tale and it is one entirely entwined in the material fabric of British history. …

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China's Age of Fragility: As China Reclaims Its Central Role in the World, Robert Bickers Appeals to Britons and Others in the West to Take Account of the Legacy Left by the Country's Difficult 19th Century
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