Looking East: Remembering the Sacking of Yuanmingyuan

This article will be the first in a series to bring you up to speed with current political and economic developments in East Asia, particularly in China, as well as their historical and cultural origins. In the coming weeks, a significant portion of this column will be devoted to analysis of the ongoing leadership transition in China. By looking East and contemplating the region’s past and current nuances, I hope to bring you additional insights in your evaluation of a changing world.

In the Autumn of 1860, 200 ships, carrying several thousand British, French, and other mercenary soldiers, appeared along the coast of Tianjin, about 100 kilometers east of the imperial capital of Beijing. Over the course of the next few months, a small expedition group broke through layers of heavy Chinese defenses manned by sword-wielding Manchurian banner men.And on October 6, they occupied the Gardens of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan) in the western countryside of Beijing. What followed were days of sacking that culminated in the burning of the gardens, 5,000 hectares of land (600 soccer fields) that took six Chinese emperors over a century and a half to build.

Such was the imagery created by CCTV’s 2006 documentary, complete with reenactments and computer-generated effects that recreated the events and garden scenes from drawings and blueprints that still exist today. The burning of the Yuanmingyuan, intended as a lesson for the Chinese emperor, feels today like the burning of the very essence of Chinese culture. Two centuries ago, this event was the complete rejection of a way of life that had persisted for the past two thousand years. This statement is hardly an exaggeration, since the Gardens contained priceless works of art and recreations of renowned architectural wonders throughout China and of places that only existed in Chinese myths and classic literature. Built at the zenith of the Qing Dynasty, Yuanmingyuan was an idealized model of China, from which emperors and mandarins ran the vast empire.

Yet such a course-altering event in Chinese history barely registered in the history books of the West. Expressions of regret appear even less. Surely the most remorseful reflection by any famous Westerner about the event came from Victor Hugo in 1861 when he ruminated over the permanent loss of “the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights” built by “architects who are poets,” an “unknown masterpiece” that was only “glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.” Hugo attributed the loss of this treasure to “two bandits”: one named France, the other named England.

For numerous reasons, tragedies initiated in the 19th and 20th centuries in China by colonial aggressors appear quite politicized today. While personal stories abound in popular media and literature in the West on slavery and atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust, stories about the Opium Wars, or the heinous acts committed by the Japanese in the Rape of Nanking rarely surface. When they do appear, the media likes to take the middle line, emphasizing historical controversies, factual disputes, and rarely display the same level of sympathy.

Of course, the Chinese government must also take a great deal of the blame for this. Thirty years after Reform and Opening-Up, while great leaps were made in methods for the control of the flow of information in cyberspace, the Communist Party of China’s model of public relations still seems to be based on mass propaganda models used during the 1950’s (note the Chinese government’s State Council Information Office is also known as the “Central Office for External Propaganda” in Party designations). The Party and government’s total inability to communicate with the outside world has damaged its credibility, undermining its position as a legitimate promoter of Chinese culture and civilization (unlike the French government), and leaving it at a significant disadvantage in resolving historical disputes internationally. Tales of atrocity perpetrated by others coming from a source that has created so much human tragedy itself do not seem to inspire much sympathy.

At a time when China is seeking its “revival” the Chinese government’s lack of credibility in the West is contributing to the persistent lack of understanding and sympathy between the two sides, both at the elite level and, more fundamentally, at the public level. Combined with the lack of sympathetic and positive reporting by Western media and popular literary sources, this lack of understanding and sympathy promotes mutual suspicion, thus feeding the growing  distrust between the two countries.

The history of Yuanmingyuan should be remembered. It should be remembered not just in China, but in the West as well. For the Chinese, the history of Yuanmingyuan must serve to remind posterity of the consequences of ineffective autocratic rule that locks people’s minds and restricts innovation. For others, the history of Yuanmingyuan should inspire regret at the loss of such unique treasures at the hands of violent and unconstrained military and political forces trying to impose their world view on others. No matter what the political circumstances are, the suffering and tragedy experienced by the Chinese people in the 19th and 20th centuries can no longer be just a “silhouette” on the distant horizon of East Asian history.

For  an MIT Visual Culture Project on the Yuanmingyuan completed by Swat history professor Lilian Li click here. You will find the plan and paintings of the garden and an overview of its history and significance.


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