Barbaric destruction or symbolic retribution –
the razing of the Yuanming Yuan.
Hot Indian deserts exhale poisonous miasma,
roast worms of sandy gold;
Black crows tear flesh from the bones of corpses,
peck at the fat, dripping blood;
Blood red poppies spring up, for all this,
they make a paste of yearning.
Greenish smoke arises when paste is pounded to pieces,
it drains gold and money out of the country.
The vitality of a neighbourhood disappears daily;
the celestial mists become the sky of yearning…
(Wang Shangchen's poem Song of Yearning1)
On the 18th October 1860 the Summer Palace or the Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming Yuan) as it is known in Chinese was set alight on the orders of 2 This was no ordinary palace but rather an exquisite garden of over eighty square miles filled with pagodas, libraries, fountains and palaces, some designed by Jesuits and built in European Baroque style (The European Palaces Xiyang Lou). Designed to be an expression of heaven on earth the Yuanming Yuan was home to thousands of priceless treasures and works of art. Its beauty was well known even outside China; it is said for example to have been the inspiration for Coleridge's 1797 poem Kubla Khan.
Left: engraving of a European style fountain built for the Qianlong Emperor within the grounds of the Yuanming Yuan. Copy right the Trustees of the British Museum, registration number 1924,05184.108.40.206
Before the flames took hold French and British troops, including officers, had indulged in an orgy of looting and destruction. Both the French and British Generals (Charles Cousin-Montauban4 and Hope Grant respectively) issued orders that nothing was to be touched but neither was able to control their troops. The Xianfeng Emperor had already fled to Rehe and the palace was left in the sole charge of 500 unarmed eunuchs who had tried to defend it against the French army which had reached the palace first.5 Many Chinese art pieces held today in both private and public European collections were taken by soldiers in 1860. Soldiers most able to secure the plunder made truly vast amounts of money. Everything was taken, from silks and jades to statues and irreplaceable manuscripts. The extent to which the site was stripped bare before it was burnt is illustrated by the fact that the British Museum holds in its Asian Ethnographic collection two plain and simple brass finger plates which must have been prised off a door in one of the European Palaces during the looting.6 Even a Pekinese dog was taken from the garden and presented to Queen Victoria by Captain Dunne in April 1861; she unselfconsciously named it Looty. A French officer wrote the following description of the treasures and the looting: “Je prends la plume, mon bon père, mais sais-je que je vais te dire? Je suis ébahi, ahuri, abasourdi de ce qu j'ai vu. Les mille et une nuits sont pour moi une chose parfaitement veridique maintenant. J'ai marché pendant presque deux jours sur plus de 30 millions de francs de soieries, de bijous, de porcelains, bronzes, sculptures, de trésors enfin! Je ne crois pas qu'on ait vu chose pareille depuis le sac de Rom par les barbares” (cited in Hanes and Sanello 2002: p. 276). The wanton destruction and theft confirmed to the Chinese that the Western allies were indeed nothing but barbarians bent on destroying and dominating China. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) never fully recovered from the humiliation and the outrage felt among the Chinese populous helped fan the flames of nationalist fervour which would end in the revolutions of the Twentieth Century.
The destruction of the Yuanming Yuan was the final culmination of the Opium Wars (Yapian Zhanzheng) (1839-1842 and 1858-1860) which 'opened' China to global trade through the forced import of Indian opium and the export of indentured labourers known as coolies. Though the destruction was a powerful symbolic act which threatened the stability of the Qing dynasty it was carried out in retribution for the brutal torture and murder of British, Indian and French prisoners of war. The torture endured by the thirty-nine prisoners was indeed horrific and the first hand accounts from the nineteen survivors are chilling reading. It is easy to see why the commanders insisted that there was some reprisal, a show of force which would ensure that westerners would no longer be in danger of detention and worse. But we have to question why those westerners were there, and this leads us back to opium, profit and global imperialism.
The opium trade was essential for the funding of the British Empire. As tea fuelled the Industrial Revolution so opium fuelled British Imperialism. Trade with China had been restricted to the port of Guangdong in 1760 by the Qianlong Emperor and the balance of trade remained strongly in China's favour. Before the first Opium War silver was haemorrhaging out of British coffers and into China. This bullion drainage was not new. Britain had inherited it from a long line of illustrious ancestors; even Roman Imperial officials were alarmed at the rate at which gold flowed to the East in payment for spices, precious stones and silks (Wolf 1982: p. 256). Only opium could reverse this balance of trade and despite some qualms from London (Gladstone for example was strongly against the trade) the East India Company could not afford to ignore the profits promised by opium. This aspect of imperial history remains little known and may even be considered a hidden history. Commentators are now calling for the frank acknowledgement of the great harm done by opium in the nineteenth century: “In [British] dreams, the empire, the Raj, was a great and glorious enterprise. It was also a global drug cartel which enslaved and destroyed millions and enriched only a few. The image of the Raj was itself a delusion created by opium. If there is to be any long-term evaluation of the empire, the opium trade must be reckoned in the equation” (Trocki 1999: p. 160). Many names associated with empire were actively involved in trading opium, including Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, Cornwallis, Raffles, and Swettenham. Jardine, Matheson & Co was the biggest importer of opium into China; a press release from the company in 1858 stated “The use of opium is not a curse, but a comfort and benefit to hard working Chinese”.
In fact the drug was weakening China, and the authorities were increasingly concerned by the great social harm it was causing. There had been a series of failed British diplomatic missions since the late 1700s, due mainly to British reluctance to participate in Chinese rituals of obeisance expected of trading nations. For the Chinese, whose Emperor was the Son of Heaven (tianzi) who ruled with the Mandate of Heaven (tianming), there was no clear end to his empire. The Chinese view of imperial power is best understood as a series of “graduated concentric circles” with the emperor at the centre of a tributary system which was established during the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) (Waley-Cohen 1999: p. 15). British gifts presented to encourage trade were interpreted (some would say wilfully) by the Chinese in accordance with this ancient system, that is as tribute from a barbaric vassal state to the civilized centre. The repeated refusal of British diplomats to kowtow to the emperor was therefore viewed, rightly, by the Chinese as a refusal to accept such a demeaning status. Britain meanwhile was building its second empire within the framework of its own 'civilizing missions'. Both Britain and China were convinced of their own civilized and superior position. Unsurprisingly this impasse coupled with the financial incentives (and imperatives) for the British led to war.
The First Opium War began in 1839 after the Daoguang Emperor ordered opium in Guangdong to be destroyed. 20,000 chests were destroyed with lime, thrown into the sea or burned. Gunships belonging to the British Expeditionary Force bombarded Guangdong. Finally after a prolonged blockade of Chinese ports and the siege of Guangzhou the British occupied Shanghai in 1842. This was important as crucial supplies passed down the Grand Canal from Shanghai to the capital Beijing. The British occupation forced the Chinese to sign the humiliating and unequal treaty of Nanjing, which opened many more ports to British trade and ceded the Island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity. It is politically significant that the Chinese do not recognise treaties signed under duress as legally valid (Wong 2002: p. 11). The Chinese still stubbornly refused to legalise opium leaving the balance of trade in China's favour.
There followed a period of armed truce. During these inter-war years the use of opium spread like wildfire through Chinese society. It was taken by all manner and class of person, from the nobles to the literati and, of most concern to the state, by the peasants. “By 1860 opium shops outnumbered other establishments that were essential to the Chinese way of life. In other words opium had become an essential part of Chinese life, it had entered the bloodstream of Chinese society” (Zheng 2005: p. 115).
Weakened as it was by opium, China had now also to deal with a horrendous civil war. The Taiping rebellion began in 1850 and was not finally suppressed until 1864. The charismatic leader of the Taiping, Hong Qiuquan had come into contact with protestant missionaries who had ultimately rejected his interpretations of Christian theology. But in the mean time Hong had a number of visions in which he was told that he was the younger brother of Jesus and the rightful 'Heavenly King', and that as the true Son of Heaven he should be ruling China. The Taiping became known as God Worshippers. Their rebellion was incredibly successful, very nearly overthrowing the Qing Dynasty. For many years Western players in the region were not sure whom to support (they could not decide whether the Taiping were Christian as the Taiping believed themselves to be) and weapons were sold to both sides. The Taiping were very radical; they believed in a much more gender equal society than most Chinese did at the time and they were highly redistributive. In fact many scholars have traced the roots of Chinese communism back to them. The Taiping managed to take Nanjing in 1853 and they made considerable inroads against the Qing forces. The rebellion cost between twenty and thirty million lives; an astonishing death toll in a war fought mostly without firearms. It contributed greatly to Chinese unease over foreign influence and considerably weakened Qing military structures.
By the 1850s a number of other western powers, notably Russia, America and France, had their own interest in further weakening China. Britain and France entered into discussions about war with China. The British were particularly wary about French intentions in China and there were calls in London to monitor French involvement and ensure that Britain got the largest share of any spoils. In fact Napoleon III was planning a move on Indo-China to the South. He saw considerable benefit in China remaining embroiled with British forces (Hanes and Sanello 2002: pp. 239 – 243). It was not until October 18567 that what has become known as the “Arrow Incident” became the casus belli for the Second Opium War. A ship, named the Arrow, with lapsed British registration, sailed into Guangdong. It was boarded by the Chinese which was interpreted by the British as an affront to the British flag. British, French and American forces captured Guangdong which led to the signing of another unequal treaty, the Treaty of Tianjin. But the Chinese refused to implement the Treaty and hostilities continued until the razing of the Yuanming Yuan in October 1860. This marked the beginning of the 'semi-colonial' era during which China formed part of the ‘informal empire' of Britain; this lasted until the destruction of the treaty port system by the Japanese in 1941 (Osterhammel  2001: pp. 148-149). Western powers gained concessions across the country and the balance of trade was no longer in China's favour. Opium continued to do untold damage to Chinese society and it was one hundred years before Mao Zedong could finally declare China free of opium addiction.
The destruction of the Yuanming Yuan and the enforcement of the long series of unequal treaties which it heralded were profoundly humiliating for the Chinese. Lord Elgin gave the order to burn it to the ground as retribution for the barbaric murder and torture of prisoners of war. He hoped to punish the emperor rather than the people of China which any bombardment of Beijing would be sure to do. Rape and pillage had been characteristic behaviour of British and French forces throughout the Second Opium War and it was imagined that the razing of Yuanming Yuan would be a more humane and restrained response. However Elgin's singling out of the Emperor for punishment was probably misguided. The Emperor, addicted to opium and the pleasures of his harem, had already fled, and anyway had little to do with ruling his kingdom. Elgin's choice of the Yuanming Yuan as the target of his retribution was a highly charged symbolic act. The Yuanming Yuan was designed to be heaven on earth. It had within its grounds palaces and fountains designed by Europeans and as such it materially expressed the Chinese Emperor's position as both Son of Heaven and ruler at the centre of the world, entitled to tribute from all manner of barbarians. With its razing and the reclaiming of this tribute this position was profoundly challenged. Westerners were already viewed with great suspicion in China as a result of their missionary activity and the opium trade. With the complete, terrible and seemingly pointless destruction of the Yuanming Yuan the British and French both proved their domination of China and their designation as barbarians, thus sowing the seeds of the Maoist Revolution to come.
Hanes, W. T. III and Sanello, F., The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another, Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks Inc, 2002
Osterhammel, J., “Britain and China, 1842 – 1914” in A. Porter (ed.) The Oxford History of British Empire vol III The Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press,  2001
Trocki, C., Opium Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian opium trade 1750 – 1950, London: Routledge, 1999
Waley-Cohen, J., The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History, New York: W.W Norton, 1999
Wong, J. Y., Deadly Dreams: Opium and the Arrow war (1856 – 1860) in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002
Zheng, Y. W., The Social Life of Opium in China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005