China and East Asia

Yuanmingyuan — a Disneyland for one person

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The Forbidden Palace in the center of Beijing was not actually the place where the emperors of China lived. Instead for most of the Qing dynasty the emperors spent most of their time at Yuanmingyuan, an enclosed palace compound north-west of the capital. Yuanmingyuan consisted of a wealth of separate buildings — palaces, temples, pagodas, pavilions, libraries and tea-houses — set in a series of gardens which were connected through meandering paths and waterways. More than anything Yuanmingyuan resembled a theme park, not too different from Disneyland. At Yuanmingyuan too there were environments designed to transport the visitor to other places — there were rural scenes with rice paddies depicting the lives of Chinese peasants, gardens copied from Suzhou and Hangzhou, replicas of temples from Tibet, street-scenes from Beijing, and even a set of European-style palaces. Instead of Disneyland’s annual 15 million plus visitors, however, Yuanmingyuan was intended for the amusement of only one man — the emperor of China, his women, children and the eunuch courtiers who attended to their needs.

Yuanmingyuan, much as Disneyland, was an idealized environment which expressed a particular view of the world. Walking through, or rowing around, his gardens the emperor could experience times past and times future, exotic animals, flora and fauna, high mountains, oceans, the countryside and the city, but also the world of learning and culture. And the emperor was the undisputed ruler of the whole thing. Everything obeyed his will and everything was easy for him to manipulate. This was not least the case since the architects, much as the architects at Disneyland, made frequent use of models and miniaturization. Many of the buildings were built in slightly smaller versions than the originals, and even many of the trees, using bonsai techniques, were smaller than the real thing. They also relied heavily on mechanical devices. There were mechanical birds that could flap their wings, and fountains that sprayed water at designated hours. In addition the emperor had a vast collection of mechanical gadgets — clocks, astronomical instruments, music boxes, but also toys like violin-playing monkeys, pecking hens, and waltzing rope-dancers. Yuanmingyuan, much as Disneyland, was a play-house world.

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. “When we first entered the gardens,” said Garnet Wolseley, a British officer and author of an eyewitness account of the campaign, “they reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales; we marched from them upon the 19th October, leaving them a dreary waste of ruined nothings.” “Not a vestige remains of the palace of palaces,” said Robert M’Ghee, chaplain to the troops. “Now back again to Pekin, a good work has been done.”

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 here. 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 – a first war was fought 1839-42, and a second, 1856-60 – 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.