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China Remembers a Vast Crime by the West

The Wanton Destruction of the Yuanmingyuan in Beijing
By SHEILA MELVIN in the New York Times; October 21, 2010
Original Article

This photo taken by Ernst Ohlmer in 1873 is believed to be one of the earliest photos of the Yuamningyuan.
BEIJING — In early October of 1860, the commanders of the British and French forces waging war on Qing Dynasty China held a tense conference outside the gates of the Garden of Perfect Brightness — Yuanmingyuan — on the western outskirts of Beijing.

Victory was at hand, the emperor having fled on an “autumnal hunting tour,” and the meeting concerned its spoils: Each side feared the other would obtain more booty from looting the huge complex.

As the primary residence of five Qing emperors, Yuanmingyuan contained hundreds of palaces, temples, libraries, theaters, pavilions, chapels, gazebos and galleries filled with priceless artworks, antiquities and personal possessions.

To ensure an equitable distribution of this imperial property, the commanders agreed to appoint “prize agents” to divvy it up.
There followed an orgy of indiscriminate plunder in which anything that could not be carted off was destroyed.

Then, on Oct. 18, British forces were ordered by Lord Elgin — son of the Lord Elgin who removed the marble friezes from Greece’s Parthenon — to inflict a final blow, with fire, as revenge for the deaths of British and Indian prisoners in Chinese captivity.

Because Yuanmingyuan was so vast — roughly five times the size of Beijing’s Forbidden City and eight times that of Vatican City — it took an entire infantry division of nearly 4,500 men, including four British regiments and the 15th Punjabis, to set it aflame. Gilded beams crashed, porcelain roofs buckled, ash filled the lakes and embers snowed down on Beijing, where clouds of dense smoke eclipsed the sun. Upon hearing the news, the ailing 30-year-old Xianfeng emperor vomited blood; less than a year later he was dead.

“It was a sacrifice of all that was most ancient and most beautiful,” acknowledged Robert McGhee, chaplain to the British forces and a participant in, and defender of, the destruction. “It is gone, but I do not know how to tear myself from it.”

A century and a half later, Yuanmingyuan holds a similar grip on the China that has inherited its ruins and can forget neither its vanished glory nor its vindictive desecration.

“Yuanmingyuan is the shame in the heart of the Chinese people,” said Que Weimin, a professor at the World Heritage Research Center at Peking University. “And a reminder for the whole world that such destruction of human cultural heritage should not happen again.”

But if China is understandably unable to forget Yuanmingyuan, it is also undecided on how best to preserve its memory and its remains. The problem — dubbed the “Yuanmingyuan complex” by some Chinese analysts — is reflected in unending debates over whether to rebuild it, and in the continuing sesquicentennial commemorations of its destruction, which have ranged from the sacred to the profane.

On the low end of the scale was a free performance called “The Legend of Yuanmingyuan,” which was held weekend evenings on the Yuanmingyuan grounds last summer. Staged by the Beijing Dragon in the Sky Shadow Puppet Troupe and considered “patriotic education” for children, the show alternated shadow puppets and costumed dwarfs in a reenactment that saw invading troops bravely staved off by local villagers using kung fu and bayonets. Foreigners — played by dwarfs wearing curly yellow-wool wigs — were depicted as venal and stupid barbarians who could not even speak their own languages. Eager to aid the emperor, the brave Chinese villagers repeatedly shouted, “Kill the foreign devils! Kill the foreign devils!”

At the other end of the spectrum is the exhibition “Disturbed Dreams in the Ruins of the Garden,” which showcases a stunning collection of photographs taken by the German photographer Ernst Ohlmer in 1873. The 72 images in “Disturbed Dreams” — which was shown at the Beijing World Art Museum over the summer and will be featured at the Shanghai Art Museum for six months in 2011 — were made from 12 large glass negatives tracked down and purchased by Qin Feng, a Taiwan-born journalist and collector.


Believed to be the earliest Yuanmingyuan photos in existence, the images lovingly depict the “Western-style palaces” designed by the Jesuit missionaries Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining) and Michel Benoit (Jiang Youren).

These magnificent buildings survived the fire largely intact because they were constructed of marble and stone, rather than the timber and tile used for most Yuanmingyuan structures. Situated in a distant corner of the gardens, they were built mainly as backdrops to the hydraulic fountains that delighted the Qianlong emperor. Ohlmer’s images are of great value to scholars since the ruins he depicts are largely gone, and the return of the negatives to China has been widely heralded. A Chinese-English catalog of the photos is available.

Several low-budget exhibits continuing at Yuanmingyuan until Oct. 31 underline the park administration’s quest to recover treasures from near and afar. The effort was given a boost during the much-publicized Oct. 18 anniversary — marked by a somber commemorative event at the ruins — when Yuanmingyuan officials renewed pleas for the return of its relics. To drum up support, a petition was placed inside the park for visitors to sign over the next year — the first signatory was the Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan, who reportedly will be the spokesman for the cause.

An “Exhibition of Relics Repair” allows visitors to watch archeologists piece together some of the 30,000 porcelain shards recovered from the grounds. Several dozen repaired relics are also on display. These include yellow dishes with the Kangxi emperor’s seal; McGhee, the British chaplain, reported that such imperial yellow china was stored “in a carved cupboard in the wall, each cup wrapped in soft paper and in a compartment by itself, so precious is it deemed.” Also on display is a small collection of repaired Buddha images.

“I feel certain that multitudes of such things were thrown away and burnt,” McGhee wrote, “because it was incredible that they could be made of gold, and yet they were.”

Deeper into the gardens is an exhibition that highlights Yuanmingyuan’s effort to track down and electronically catalog looted relics that are overseas.

It includes glass exhibition cases that, poignantly, contain only art-history books since all the items depicted are gone from China. Yuanmingyuan estimates there are 1.5 million relics in the hands of museums and private collectors outside China, but some Chinese scholars question the methodology by which such figures were obtained.

Posters show images of Yuanmingyuan relics in foreign collections — the gold, pearl and ruby cap ornament of an imperial prince in the Philadelphia Museum; the Qianlong emperor’s armor in the French Military Affairs Museum; and jade carvings in the Fontainebleau Palace.

An entire room is devoted to blown-up photographs of the Chinese zodiac animal heads that once adorned an elaborate water clock fountain designed by Benoit.

The animals spouted in turn for two hours and in unison at noon — a day was divided into 12 increments known as “chen” in imperial China, each of which had an animal symbol. The auction of several of these exquisite faucets on the international market in recent years has caused indignation in China and has come to be seen as a further reminder of the nation’s humiliation at foreign hands.

Another exhibition features relics that were returned to Yuanmingyuan by various individuals and organizations in Beijing. These are mainly stone carvings that were too heavy to be taken far, but could be dragged across town.

Although there are several dozen returned relics on display — like two stone fish with googly eyes, gaping mouths and flapping tails that were returned in November 2006 by the Organization Department of the Communist Party and “citizen Li Shaomo” — many more remain scattered around the city. These include two stone terraces that made up part of the famed fountain that fed the water clock and are now on the grounds of Peking University.

Ultimately, a loss as great as that of Yuanmingyuan may be one with which China will never come to terms — and fair enough. Even McGhee, while continuing to insist on the “stern but just necessity” of its destruction, confessed as much.

“I love to linger over the recollection, but I cannot make you see it,” he wrote. “A man must be a poet, a painter, a historian, a virtuoso, a Chinese scholar, and I don’t know how many other things besides, to give you even an idea of it, and I am not an approach to any one of them. But whenever I think of beauty and taste, of skill and antiquity, while I live, I shall see before my mind’s eye some scene from those grounds, those palaces.”







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