To Live and Let Burn....Or, never let Lord Elgin play with matches....

There it sits, not far from the Forbidden City itself.  Originally built but for a boy.  And of course expanded over time, from Emperor to Emperor, until the walls literally came tumbling down.   And there it lies, to this day, as a symbol of China's humiliation, and weakness.  The waft of "Victim Syndrome" fills the air.

But very few Chinese were killed here, if any.  There were no bombs, no radiation.  But there was a mob, alright.

The overweening narrative I've oft heard when  young, from other young folk, is that the ruthless laowai simply burned the whole thing down.

Of course when youngerer, what is simpler then and uncluttered is all so easy to understand and explain.  The older one becomes, the more one understands there are always two sides to the story, for any situation, the more good old fashioned "nuance" fills the air, like a mist that never goes away.

So it is with "Yuan Mingyuan". 圆明园  Or is it "Yuanming Yuan"?  Or even "Yuanmingyuan"? I've seen all three.

The battle of understanding what Yuanming Yuan stands for is ongoing.  What does it symbolize?  And why exactly was the perhaps greatest cultural monument to China's Artistic Legacy destroyed?

You see, China is still fighting this war, too.

Nor does it help things when we learn the date it burned down.  1860.  Mention the 1800's and one is sure to invoke the belittling of China at the hands of the British Lion.

To this day I am simply overwhelmed with how much SPACE and TERRITORY Britain ruled during its height of glory and power during the 1800's.

Let's see....India, Canada, Australia....all under the British Queen, Victoria herself.    And for you American History Nuts, yes, it still held on to a good chunk of the American West, ie Oregon Territory.

And when it's Navy wasn't flaunting itself from port to port, it was sinking China's pretty much whenever it simply wanted to pick a fight.

My point is if the Yuanming Yuan incident had not occurred during the zenith of British Naval Power and global dominance, this might have become another footnote and nothing more of China's inevitable slide down the path of "has beens". 

Instead all Chinese to this day are aware of the name, and the place,  and the result.  And if there is anything the Chinese Communist party excels at, it is keeping great events "simple".   During this time in Chinese History there is only one Good Guy and everyone else is nothing but another bandit stealing from the Chinese Emperor.

Not the Chinese People.  This was a phase Mao's Marketing Department wouldn't come up with for still a couple of generations, both of which would become mired and stuck within China's deep sense of victimization, some of which was utter nonsense, while some of which, was horribly true.

Don't like the Qing?  Simple, point to Yuanming Yuan.   Why was this place even built?  Didn't China have enough gardens?  What of the "Summer Palace" itself? A resort with a history dating back already several hundred years.  So why build another one?

I won't mention yet another Qing Palace...Chengde Mountain Resort.  避暑山庄。Several Chinese Emperors died here.

And didn't the Qing already have the Forbidden City ?  Not big enough?  Ok, Yuanming Yuan was eventually five times bigger than the Imperial Residence itself.  Over time of course.  The main reason for its initial construction was the birth of Kangxi's fourth son.   Not his first, or second....his fourth boy.

One wonders what the first three son's got?

Over the course of 150 years Yuanming Yuan grew in size.  And the problem with that made itself an obvious target for foreign treachery.  To this day one wonders why the Forbidden City itself was not ransacked?  And the same could be said for the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.    The imagery simply being too strong.  The Foreign Powers simply left it be.  Not so everything else.

So all Chinese learn it was burnt to the ground.  Do Chinese history books mention the reasons?   Perhaps here the corruption of the Qing would simply distract from the narrative?  Fair enough.

Let's simply say if not for one man, the infamous Lord Elgin(no, not  that Lord Elgin, of Elgin marble infamy).

How does one justify the burning of a great cultural masterpiece?  The accumulation of  over a century of architectural wonder as well as a reflection of Chinese artistic achievement?

In sum, I would say one does not justify such an action from one sole event.  Rather, from an accumulation of untold perceived slights.  That is, since the most unwise belittlement of Britain's first envoy to China in 1792, Lord Macartney, through the burning of opium, the unapologetic policy of keeping the West, ie Great Britain, at arms length, coupled with the utter frustration of Great Britain to even turn a trade surplus with China.  Pre opium era that is.  For decades the British had to pay for Chinese goods in silver. In advance!

The depletion of Britain's silver supply was always a worry in London.

The constant subtle reminders, "yeah you guys are great, but maybe not so great", simply added up.  Alas, these reminders would continue up until the Boxer Rebellion finally settled things once and for all, and put China "in it's place".

It's ironic the burning of Yuanming Yuan actually enforced the animosity of China towards Britain.  Nevermind that French troops also participated, the Commander was British.  Nevermind the greatest irony of all, that ordinary Chinese most likely upon death, were not even allowed to set foot within this Qing Paradise.

One must understand from perhaps a Chinese lense, there was nothing wrong with the elitism and perhaps even overtly extravagant lifestyle of the Qing, or of any other Chinese Dynasty.  Afterall, the ordinary Chinese were used to being mere bystanders, century upon century, in a play only remotely concerning them, most definitely not about them.

Was Britain simply looking for an excuse to burn down the Qing's greatest architectural achievement?  Perhaps, no probably.   Alas the Chinese, like a rebellious daughter, gave Britain the opportunity it had probably long sought to put it's foot down upon the perceived arrogance of the Chinese Imperial Court.

But first the grievance.  What was the damn grievance anyway?

Simple.  Britain wanted respect. But let's not single out the Lion. The West wanted it too.  Even then, from that fateful day in 1792, when The Heavenly Kingdom gave Britain the infamously polite but oh so direct middle finger, it had been craving giving China a good whacking.  We all know that.  Racism and a sense of superiority perhaps?  Well of course!  Both China and Britain looked down upon the other.

But China should have known better right?  To cry about the plundering of its own cultural legacy, a legacy 99.99% of China's own population wasn't privy to, much less knew anything about.   We'll never know how much it cost to build Yuanming Yuan.   And quite frankly, no one in China wants to know. It all hides the fact that China simply failed to give Britain the one thing it could not buy, or negotiate in a treaty;  Britain simply wanted a little Face.  And China refused to give it. 

The Lion wanted recognition.   Kinda like China does today.  Recognition of its right to ask and receive certain privileges.  And over the course of nearly seventy years, it obviously "still hadn't found what it was looking for".....nor was it on the horizon.

Don't we think a little love towards the Western Barbarians, perhaps a little coexistence would have kept this little blow up from even taking place?   Generations of Chinese would have been able to read about something else in their history books.   Still, for lack of recognition of the mere possibility that other nations were just a little badass in their own right, and in their own special way,  this whole incident had to go down.

So what did go down?

Several British and Indian soldiers, along with British envoys were captured and interrogated during an attempted truce parlay.    The Qing eventually arrested the envoys along with their translators and bodyguards.   It then killed more than half of its captives.  Upon hearing of this, Lord Elgin simply ordered the British and French armies to divert towards the Old Summer Palace, which wasn't hard to do, and to destroy it.  Never mind that Chinese troops were indeed nearby, and could have perhaps put up a fight, but chose not to.  In hindsight could you blame them?  Why defend something they themselves are not privy to setting their eyes upon?

That is, why defend something they themselves are not emotionally attached to?

Perhaps I will be accused of looking at this through a 21st century prism.  My response is that  respect is timeless.  One can get away with ignoring the weak, humiliating them even, as giving them no respect will probably still not hurt your overall position within society, as long as no one knows much of it.  But to ignore the strong....even worse to go out of your way to ignore the strong?  Well, it is then the punishment meted out so often is in disproportion to the crime itself.

Yet this Event deserves to be put into historical context.  The British were cads, and the Chinese arrogant.  My argument is this:  Should anyone really care about the destruction of a place that most Chinese not only didn't know about, but could never enjoy or enter?  One can argue this horrible event, while shameful, was also a convenient way to unify China against the West.  And it worked.  In spades.

But back to the historical context.  What else was happening during this time of yet another Opium War ?  At the time of the Second Opium War(1859-1860), there was a "little rebellion" taking place within the vast boundaries of China.  It was called the Taiping Rebellion, and it lasted from 1850-1864.  Around twenty million Chinese perished.  At least.  Mostly through famine.

How many Chinese were killed during the looting of Yuanming Yuan? It wasn't twenty million Chinese souls. And probably not even twenty.  But at the time of the burning of Yuanming Yuan we know the Taiping Rebels in the same year captured both Hangzhou and Suzhou from the Qing.  We know that on average over the course of the fourteen year "rebellion" over a million Chinese lost their lives per year.  Nevermind the American Civil War. A mere four year conflict.  This was Chinese killing Chinese for fifteen years. 

Famine included.

The American Civil War was Taiping Rebellion "lite".  On a scale of one to ten, in terms of utter desolation, it was maybe a two, with the Rebellion a ten. Afterall, the American Southern Armies looted zero large Northern cities.

Maybe I speak out of place, but shouldn't it be a more urgent priority to internally understand why Chinese killed Chinese so wantonly for such a continuous period, rather than try and analyze why the British and French were able to so easily loot and destroy temples and gardens?

Lord Elgin first considered simply burning the Forbidden City. Massacring a million Chinese probably never occurred to him, though make no mistake, this Lion does indeed have blood on it's hands.   It wasn't the goal of "killing" Chinese to make a statement.  Because Lord Elgin knew that simply killing a million peasants simply wouldn't register with the Qing.  To China's imperial dynasties, the peasants were simply a statistic.  A source of revenue and conscription for the Army.   A blot of ink on a piece of rice paper, devoid of any substance or personality. 

Lord Elgin knew all too well, to really punish the Qing he had to hit them where they would feel it.  And that was their Imperial Playground.

And yet to this day many a soul fails to appreciate the historical context of what was happening in China in 1860.  As Chiang Kai Shek knew his real enemy wasn't the Japanese, but Mao, so the Qing perhaps knew their real enemy wasn't the West, but  rather from within.  Which makes their dogged victimization campaign over the cultural looting of a parcel of land so specious an argument.   China's house in 1860 was on fire.  And yet all it wanted to only bring to everyone's attention was that someone stole roses from its garden.

And it worked.  The death of twenty million Chinese indeed was nothing but a blot of ink after all, but mind you in 1860 the population of China was only around 380 million.  Still the Chinese did not blink.  Maybe they didn't know.  Just as surely as they did not know about those dastardly non art loving barbarians.  Funny China  over a hundred years later chose to commemorate one moment, and not the other.


  1. While I understand and agree with your larger point, I think the specific incident is another great example of the differences between East and West and their different ways of thinking. Events leading up to Pearl Harbor is another example with different parties involved. To the Chinese/Manchus, any negotiations were just a part of the war, and if they then seized and tortured the negotiators after that it was reasonable in the East Asian/Non-Western view of the world related to war. However, to the Western view of the world, it is one of the worst possible actions a nation can take against another nation. It is pure treachery, and there will be hell to pay. The burning/looting was simply a punishment for Qing treachery. Same thing happened with Pearl Harbor. The Japanese thought (except Admiral Yamamoto himself who had studied in the West)that the Americans would simply roll out and stay out Asian affairs. The result was the opposite, anti-war Midwestern Americans became pro-war overnight due to "Japanese treachery." Even in recent times, the Gulf war was as much about revenge as oil. The Americans had the view that the Iraqis were just going to lob a few missiles on the border area to teach the Kuwaitis a lesson. When the full invasion came about, the Americans felt they were lied to and so wanted revenge. Lastly, it is important to keep in mind in the context of the long Chinese "Economic War" against the West. Not only Trump (and the US in general), but the EU and others feel there is a fairness involved in trade. So the West mistakenly thought the Chinese would become more like them over the years after joining the WTO. Of course that didn't happen since the traditional Chinese view of war is win at all costs. So the West has moved beyond denial to anger. The EU, American globalista and others in the international community while personally hating Trump are happy with what is going on to a certain extent since they feel "betrayed" by China for not becoming a "normal" country like they were supposed to. Basically, nothing has changed in 150 years.

  2. Love the comment.

    Here is my take: What you are trying to say is that China believes trade is zero sum? Or rather that any economic war is such? I will say I believe strongly that China looks at it's relations with America vis a vis the power struggle in Asia proper as such.

    I also believe that CHina really let a golden opportunity slide. Over the previous 15 years China really could've made a few easy concessions, in the broader scheme of things. Such as allowing Chinese to open a bank account with a foreign bank within China for only 10 rmb, such as my wife did a few years ago.

    I feel strongly China has a right to set it's own policies, to become strong or self reliant. However, the goal of the policy gets lost in the message. The Chinese leadership really needs to take a marketing class. The entire West now see's China for what it truly is...a country dominated by a leadership with no interest in doing things "our way".

    It will take quite awhile for China to master the concept of soft power.


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