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The Burning of the Yuanmingyuan: 150 Years Later

150 years ago this month, troops from an Anglo-French expedition torched the imperial gardens located in Northwest Beijing.  The multiplicity of meanings associated with the site and the complicated circumstances of its destruction make for fascinating history as well as an opportunity for the CCP’s educational minions to leech that history of any real substance — other than as a crude device to teach ‘patriotism.’

Author, scholar, and fellow IES faculty member Sheila Melvin has a great piece in last week’s New York Times discussing the history of the Yuanmingyuan.  She writes:

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).

The problem with choosing symbols for their political potency is that the things and places and people politicians choose already come freighted with baggage, meanings, and symbolic values that may be at odds with the ideology political leaders seek to espouse.

Consider this:

At the end of the day, the decision to wage war against the Qing Empire following the Arrow Incident of 1856 was one of the most savage and blatant examples of the North Atlantic imperialist powers attempting to force concessions from the Qing Empire.  Even as English writers trumpeted the need to bring China into the ‘comity of nations’ based on the rules of equality and national sovereignty, the imperialist powers sought to use military force to compel the Qing court to sign treaties which further eroded Qing sovereignty.

This past June I did a little series on this blog about History, Violence and Memory.  Writing about the Boxer Uprising and the subsequent foreign invasion of 1900, I argued that including nuance and complexity in the the story of Yuanmingyuan doesn’t change one bit the larger theme of the destructive affects of imperialism in China, unless of course your goal isn’t to teach history but to ‘teach patriotism.’

Even if you add all of these messy details to the textbook narrative, it doesn’t fundamentally alter the basic premise that the foreign powers were aggressive, arrogant, and willing to use force to get what they wanted no matter how unreasonable the demand with the inevitable result that this considerable amount of resentment and hostility was bound to erupt into violence (as it did many times throughout the 19th century) culminating in the large-scale bloodshed of 1900.

So what if the Boxers lacked “nationalist” consciousness, or if there were killings and atrocities on both sides, or that most of the provincial officials thought that the Qing decision to “declare war” was so daft they completely ignored several imperial decrees and put their offices (if not possibly more) in peril?

I’ve read that kids who are too protected from germs, who grow up in homes scrubbed and re-scrubbed in antiseptics and disinfectants, are actually more likely to get sick and develop allergies than the kids who play outside in the dirt every day.  Apparently it has something to do with exposure to all kinds of things, messy things, and so developing the bodies ability to handle the presence of mess.

History used to teach patriotism isn’t history, it’s propaganda pure and simple.  Why bother when the story is so powerful on its own as to defy the crude attempts to paint it purely in black and white?  When told with all the colors in the historian’s palette, there is enough to justify outrage and even more to stimulate some actual critical thinking about the past and its relationship to our lives in the present.

Posted by on October 24, 2010.

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Categories: Chinese History, The Historical Record

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About Jottings from the Granite Studio

Jeremiah Jenne grew up in Atkinson, NH and is the Executive Director of The Hutong, Beijing’s premier cultural exchange center. In his spare time, Jeremiah runs the Chinese history site Jottings from the Granite Studio.   He has written for the China Beat, the online edition of the Atlantic Monthly, and The Economist. He has also contributed essays to two […]more →