The European destruction of Yuanmingyuan

The Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty did not live in the imposing buildings in the center of Beijing, they lived at Yuangmingyuan. Yuanmingyuan was a large pleasure garden filled with palaces, villas, temples, pagodas, lakes, flowers and trees. It was also the location of an imperial archive and library, and the place where the emperors stored tributary gifts. The Yuanmingyuan was the secluded playground of the Chinese rulers; it was “the garden of gardens”and a vision of paradise.

In October, 1860, a combined army of British and French troops entered Yuanmingyuan and destroyed the whole thing. Between October 6 and 9, the French looted much of the contents of the palaces. The soldiers, including many officers, ran from room to room, “decked out in the most ridiculous-looking costumes they could find,” looking for loot. The ceramics were smashed, the artwork pulled down, the jewelry pilfered, rolls of the emperor’s best silk were used to tie up the army’s horses. “Officers and men seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity”; “a furious thirst has taken hold of us”; it was an “orgiastic rampage of looting.” Then on October 18, James Bruce, the Eighth Lord Elgin, the highest-ranking diplomat and leader of the British mission to China, decided to burn the entire compound to the ground. Since most of the buildings were made of cedar-wood, they burned easily and quickly but since the compound was so large it still took them two days to complete the task.

The Europeans committed this act of barbarism in order to “civilize” the Chinese. In the middle of the nineteenth-century, the Europeans had only limited access to the Chinese market for their goods; they could not travel around the country and there were no European diplomats or missionaries permanently stationed there. This, the Europeans decided, was the reason why China had failed to become a modern – that is to say a “civilized” – country. China had isolated itself but now the Europeans were going to help them. By making war on the Chinese, they were going to force the Chinese to open up to the world market and to new influences from abroad. The destruction of Yuanmingyuan was the act of barbarism which finally decided the matter. The destruction terrorized the emperor and the court and made them realize that they were powerless against the intruders.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Opium Wars”