China's Age of Fragility
As China reclaims its central role in the world, Robert Bickers appeals to Britons and others in the West to take account of the legacy left by the country’s difficult 19th century.
One recent late November, I took a stroll through the grounds of the Yuanmingyuan, the ‘Old Summer Palace’, just north of the Peking University campus in the north-west corner of that sprawling city. This one is a big site, forested and landscaped, and generally lacks the crowds of tourists that converge on the new Summer Palace, the Yiheyuan complex, located a mile to the west, which surrounds the vast Kunming Lake. The Yuanmingyuan is a complex of gardens, lakes and islands built during the 18th century as a private resort for the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty. It is a beautiful spot, perfect for escape on a chilly morning from the bustle of the city, its relative quietness punctuated only by the golf carts carrying visitors around and shouts from children who visit in groups with their schools and of the teachers directing them around. As I paused to admire one of the views I realised that the red-scarved children close by me were assembling in ranks, with two of their number, a boy and a girl both around 12 years old, getting ready to address a video camera that had been placed ready on a tripod. Filming began and the children stood to attention. ‘Young friends,’ declaimed the boy, gesturing behind him, ‘this site was burned down by the British and French imperialists in 1860.’ The camera turned to take in the vista behind him. The boy and girl carried on with the presentation, but my presence was making the children and some of their accompanying adults a little uncomfortable, so I wandered on.
A bitter episode
I had witnessed ‘Patriotic Education’ in action and at one of the totemic sites of modern Chinese nationalism, for the Yuanmingyuan was indeed destroyed by the Allied armies which invaded northern China in 1860 and marched on the imperial capital to end the Second Opium War, a conflict also known as the Arrow War. This episode of Chinese history had begun almost four years earlier, sparked by an Anglo-Chinese confrontation over a ship called the Arrow in the harbour at Canton in China’s far south. War-hungry – there is no better term for them – British officials on the spot seized the opportunity to exacerbate the dispute in a bid to get the treaties which had partially opened China to British trade revised in their favour. They thought the British position as it stood under the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing was humiliating. Interrupted by the 1857 Indian Mutiny and by a British defeat at the Dagu Forts in north China in summer 1859, the war had lumbered on into 1860. At the gates of the capital, angered by the seizure and maltreatment of some two dozen British, French and Indian personnel, some of whom had died in captivity and some of whom thought they had been taken when under a flag of truce, the British plenipotentiary Lord Elgin (1811-63) insisted on a retribution targeted precisely and personally at the ruling Xianfeng emperor, Yizhu (1831-61). The Chinese people would be spared pain, Elgin believed, and only the emperor’s pleasure dome would be destroyed. The French demurred, arguing that the Imperial Palace – the Forbidden City – should be destroyed instead, but Elgin got his way and the complex was put to the torch on October 18th, 1860.
‘A pang of sorrow seizes upon you,’ recalled one participant in the destruction; ‘You cannot help it, no eye will ever again gaze upon those buildings which have been doubtless the admiration of ages.’ But then he remembered that some of the possessions of the European captives had been found there and turned to ‘gaze with satisfaction on the ruin’. It was hard work, reported Colonel Charles Gordon (1833-85), of later Khartoum fame; ‘wretchedly demoralising work’ for the troops were ‘wild for plunder’, but had little time for pillage and burned knowing they were turning treasure into smoke. It is hardly a glorious tale and it is one entirely entwined in the material fabric of British history. Plaques on church and cathedral walls record service in the ‘China Campaign 1860’; and museums and galleries are stocked with items looted from the complex before it was destroyed. Plenty of plunder was brought back. But other palaces in other places were destroyed by British ‘punishment’ expeditions of one sort or another, so in many ways it is not actually so unusual a blot on the British record. The French record, too: Yuanmingyuan loot forms the core of the Empress Josephine’s ‘Chinese Museum’ at the Château of Fontainebleau. However, there are few places where that history is kept so vividly fresh as in China.
Past and present
For history matters in China and the history of China’s relations with the West and with Japan matters intensely to those directing its educational system and cultural policies. At schools and universities, in prime time documentary series and on the shelves of bookshops, China’s modern past is presented to readers, viewers and students. The schoolchildren I chanced upon were wearing scarves showing them to be members of the Young Pioneers, a mass organisation run by the ruling Communist Party’s ‘Communist Youth League’, to which most Chinese children between the ages of six and 14 belong. The aim of the Young Pioneers is to inculcate an understanding of Communism and a commitment to it alongside more traditional ideals that would be familiar to British scouts and guides, as well as patriotism. But patriotism has become more and more important over the last 20 years, replacing Communism in many ways as the key theme. The most important lesson for the video-makers at the Yuanmingyuan was a patriotic one, not least that, contrary to Lord Elgin’s assumption, it was in fact the Chinese people not the emperor who had been hurt by the burning of the Summer Palace complex and the loss thereby of an important piece of their cultural heritage.
The lesson taught goes further than that, however. China was humbled, the narrative goes, because it was weak and the Communist Party has now made the country strong. Over a century from 1842 onwards this interpretation of China’s history continues: the country was humiliated by foreign powers, which waged wars and imposed ‘unequal’ treaties, causing catastrophic human, economic and cultural destruction. This was a century of ‘National Humiliation’; guochi, as it is routinely described. So routinely in fact that you can buy handy encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases of ‘National Humiliation’, as well as pithy histories of it. Images of the ruined buildings of the Yuanmingyuan routinely feature on their covers. It was only with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the narrative claims, that this sorry tale came to an end and China’s sovereignty was restored.
The state’s record since 1949 is dangerous terrain for historians. The 1959-62 Great Famine, which according to recent estimates killed 45 million people, and the destruction wrought by the 1966-69 Cultural Revolution are not subjects for discussion. It is easiest to stick with the pre-Communist past. So there is nothing neutral or objective in this portrayal of modern China’s history. It tells a story and tells it very effectively. There are in fact now almost a thousand themed history museums in China. Many of them are focused on events, or sites linked to China’s battering by foreign powers, led by the British, after the 1830s. Although always part of the Chinese Communist Party’s analysis of the country’s ills before it came to power, this intense focus on the story of imperialism’s impact on China stems from a deliberate policy of ‘Patriotic Education’. As a result, every Chinese schoolchild knows this story.
Campaign of awareness
The Patriotic Education movement was launched in the wake of the 1989 Democracy Movement that met its end in the Tiananmen Square massacre. One strand of analysis by the Party of the unrest that had mobilised thousands of protesters across the nation, was that they were insufficiently aware of the achievements of the state under the Communist Party’s guidance. Resource and effort was thereupon diverted into embedding a new programme for patriotism into the education system at all levels, as well as into other educational sites such as museums. The results have certainly been effective; any young Chinese adult or schoolchild can tell you this approved story. Indeed, I have often found myself very ably lectured on it when I have told people met in chance encounters there that I am a historian. At the same time the Chinese economic boom of the past two decades has engendered a very strong pride in China’s achievements and potential. The country has resumed its place in the world, people argue. The narratives come together neatly, for through China’s new-found economic strength the era of humiliation can never be repeated and much discussion of its new strength relates it to that past weakness. It is easy for Britons to assume that this Chinese discussion of past indignities primarily concerns the more recent past, especially the Japanese invasion of China that commenced in 1931: the continued apparent ambivalence of Japanese politicians in particular about how to deal publicly with that period continues to attract attention. But in the Chinese narrative of National Humiliation the Japanese assault, while the most destructive, was merely the last of a wave of attacks – and Britain plays a central role in the overall story.
But in Britain understandings of the once tightly intertwined history of relations with China are poor. It is barely taught at schools or at universities and it is little known otherwise. Yet it is more than a history of the Yuanmingyuan. It is a history of the residence in China of thousands of Britons, who enjoyed exemption from Chinese law and were instead subject to the jurisdiction of their consuls and a British Supreme Court for China. It is the story of the development in a number of Chinese cities of British-controlled concessions, of the direction and staffing of China’s most important revenue source, the Maritime Customs, by a total of 5,500 British nationals between 1854 and 1950 and of a large British-dominated International Settlement at Shanghai that controlled the heart of what became China’s most important urban centre. The Royal Navy had a fleet of specially built gunboats that patrolled the Yangzi and West rivers and even after the ‘leased territory’ of Weihai was returned to Chinese rule in 1930 after 32 years of British control it was retained as a summer naval base. After the establishment of the People’s Republic, of course, a British colony remained on Chinese soil at Hong Kong. Other states had their interests in China as well. Germany, Russia, France and Japan acquired significant territories and colonies, concessions and their own advantageous slices of the Chinese pie. Even Italy and Belgium acquired concession areas in the northern port of Tianjin.
Until the Japanese invasion that began in September 1931 the British presence was the most prominent and the most contentious. The British share of China’s foreign trade had been the largest until the First World War and the International Settlement was policed by British bobbies, aided in turn by Sikhs and Chinese. Thousands of Protestant and Catholic missionaries and priests lived and worked beyond the cities; many of the former in particular were British. Records of this large and diverse British presence are held in libraries, archives and museums in Britain and in private hands, too. But even though it is often remembered in private, it is largely forgotten about publicly.
So poor, indeed, is this understanding of the past, and so little is the importance given to it, that British politicians, otherwise rather media-savvy, arrived in Beijing in September 2010 proudly wearing their Remembrance Day poppies. Surely someone in the British Foreign Office ought to have realised that the sight of four British Cabinet ministers wearing poppies in China would prove at the very least a potential distraction from the main focus of their visit? For many Chinese, Britain and the poppy are interwoven into the fabric of modern China’s experience. Not the red poppies of Flanders, of course, but the poppies of Bengal and the opium harvested from them and shipped to China on British ships from the early 19th century onwards. It was the growing demand for tea that took the British to China initially, but it was opium that came to pay for that trade and that drove those urging that the country be ‘opened’ – by force, if argument failed. And when in December 2009 the former Chinese Ambassador Fu Ying was summoned to the Foreign Office to receive formal British complaints about the execution of a British national, Akmal Shaikh, for alleged drug smuggling, the ‘bitter memory of history’ in China relating to narcotics was brought up by her, an oblique but obvious reference to the historic British record. Of course China’s diplomats and leaders and the Chinese media which so feasted on David Cameron’s poppy do not obsessively harp on about this past, but it remains latent and is deployed when thought to be effective and generally catches others unawares and unprepared. China’s education system itself, however, does harp on about it.
A newly affluent China is also trying to relocate and repatriate items looted from the Yuanmingyuan. There have been prominent attempts to buy back some of the iconic fragments of the complex or to prevent their sale at auction, as happened in March 2009 when the sale by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s estate of two sculptures from the palace was sabotaged when the successful Chinese bidder then refused to pay. In China itself a debate rages about whether or not in fact to rebuild it, or reconstruct the complex at another site, with their opponents arguing that it should be preserved as it now is as a memorial to China’s humiliation. While there was also some ambivalence about responses to the Yves Saint Laurent sale, most observers and commentators argue that such items should be ‘returned’. What is additionally interesting about the Yuanmingyuan, however, is that the most iconic (and visible) of the ruins were the product of the cosmopolitanism of the Qing empire, for they were designed by Jesuit missionaries. This complex of Baroque buildings and gardens, the ‘Western Pavilions’ (Xiyanglou), was constructed in the late 1740s during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, Hongli (1711-99). The Qing rulers were confident and interested in skills possessed by outsiders such as the Catholic missionaries, who found that astronomers, mathematicians and musicians could all find their place at court. They proved far less interested in the Christian religion that impelled the missionary enterprise, but this symbol of Sino-foreign interaction was at the heart of the Yuanmingyuan.
The national humiliation narrative focuses on Chinese victimhood and lack of agency, but the world that developed in the forcibly opened treaty ports after 1842 was a world of intense Sino-foreign collaboration. The power relationship was increasingly asymmetrical, weighted in the foreigner’s favour certainly, but nothing that foreign enterprise could undertake or achieve on Chinese soil could succeed unless it was a Sino-foreign endeavour in some way. (Even the British military expeditions had relied on Chinese collaborators or labour.) Chinese capital, connections and expertise proved vital for western traders and without Chinese evangelists the mission enterprise would have foundered from the start. The foreign merchant in Shanghai might think and live as if he was in a British colony, but the reality was much more complex. In fact he was often swiftly outsmarted by Chinese merchants, who proved adept at making use of new technologies – the steamship and the telegraph in particular – rebuffing foreign attempts to secure a position in Chinese markets outside the main treaty ports.
As the Qing state attempted to equip itself after 1860 to deal with debilitating internal rebellion and counter the continued foreign threat it drew on some key foreign advisers. Notable among these was an Ulsterman, Robert Hart (1835-1911), who led the Maritime Customs Service for five decades after 1861 and whose service was used to provide the finance to build up arsenals and fund and co-ordinate a foreign language college, a lighthouse system along the coast and other initiatives. Hart has been routinely pilloried in the past in China as an agent of British imperialism but, even when he finally turned down the offer of the post of British Minister to China (the equivalent of ambassador) in 1885 (as he could, he noted be more use to British interests by staying in the Customs), he was mostly driven by a belief in the need to build up a strong China and a Sino-foreign exchange that avoided military conflict. Hart had seen the horrors of war first hand in the bloody Anglo-French occupation of Canton during the Second Opium War and he did not wish to see another one. That wish was denied, over and over, and in 1900 British troops once again marched on the capital alongside contingents from seven other nations during the Boxer uprising and the subsequent war. But many like Hart believed that 1900 was a tragedy and urged the foreign powers to restrain themselves.
The national humiliation narrative also generally denies agency to those in China who thwarted or softened the foreign impact before 1914, where they could, and who rolled back the foreign presence after the First World War. Among the sorry record of war and imposition, imperial and, after the 1911 revolution, republican officials secured some success in rebuffing foreign impositions and unpicking the system that had been created. They proceeded with caution, but did so adroitly. The treaty system had been dismantled before the Communists came to power. Popular movements and pressure as well as highly educated foreign ministry officials all made their contribution to rolling back the foreign establishment. It was an uneven process and was slowed down dramatically when the Japanese onslaught commenced in 1931. But in Sino-British and Sino-American treaties signed in 1943 the old world of the treaty ports was abolished. China emerged from the war one of the victorious allied powers, with a seat on the newly established United Nations Security Council. Its place in the world was radically different to that of 1931, let alone 1860.
There was consciousness immediately after the events of October 1860 that the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan had been an act of vandalism whose memory would endure. Hart remarked in his diary in 1867 that:
We are just the very people on whom the Chinese ought to look with the greatest dislike, the strongest hatred, [for the British] had dragged them into two wars, burnt their palace, & played the mischief everywhere: we have been the leaders in all acts of violence, & the loudest talkers about humanity, etc.!
The palace that the British had burnt was well known in Europe before 1860, through missionary accounts and through reports from the British embassy of Lord Macartney in 1793, who was left speechless by its beauty. In one way thereafter it slowly served as a site which rehabilitated a positive view of Chinese culture and its achievements, for it became a regular focus of foreign tourism in Beijing, especially as a site for photography. The impact of photography was important in helping to create a new image of China in foreign eyes. The Sinophilia of the 18th century, epitomised by the cult of chinoiserie, had soured dramatically in the 19th; after 1842 familiarity seemed to breed only contempt. But the undoubted supremacy of the British position after 1860 brought about the start of another shift. The Scottish photographer John Thomson was one important figure in this slow rehabilitation; his landmark four-volume study Illustrations of China and its People (1873-74) contained superb and evocative photographs taken in the course of four visits between 1868-72. Another figure was Thomas Child (who ran a gas plant in Beijing for Robert Hart), but there were others too. Growing foreign interest in ‘old Peking’ was reflected in the publication of guidebooks and works devoted specifically to the lost Yuanmingyuan. Slowly the loss of the palace was represented not simply as a loss to Chinese culture, but to a sense of culture more widely. British comment preferred to concentrate on the undoubted privations of the foreign captives of 1860, but the tragedy of that year was increasingly seen by the Chinese as far more than just another routine calamity of war.
When I finally got to the Xiyanglou that chilly November morning the ruins were overrun by Young Pioneers. Lesson over, presumably, these children were now chasing each other around, jumping on the stones and calling out ‘Hello’ to me in English before scampering off giggling. Westerners should temper their concerns about the impact of this Chinese programme designed to systematically create in their young people’s minds a consciousness of European culpability in China’s past humiliation. A ruin is still a ruin and a site for fun, as much as it is a site for remembrance. But even so, giggling over, the strength of the impact of China’s patriotic education programmes is such that European states can also suddenly find themselves at the receiving end of nationalist agitation full of complaints about historic injustices. Those historic injustices are not that far in the past either: the colonies of Hong Kong and Macao were only returned to China in 1997 and 1999 respectively. And despite two decades of rapid economic development and urban change, many of China's cities still provide much evidence of how they were shaped by their former foreign populations. Yuanmingyuan loot still surfaces in auction houses and sits in our museums. For many Britons and other Europeans the story of the burning of the Summer Palace in 1860, like other controversial events, remains just another historical fact, an unhappy one, but one set in two countries now both far away: China itself and Victorian, imperial Britain. In both of them, as L.P. Hartley noted in his novel The Go Between, ‘they do things differently there’. But China’s education programme will keep this troubled past alive as a factor in contemporary politics and in Chinese understandings of their country’s place in the world. It would be useful if Britons and other westerners were made more aware of their tangled and difficult past relations with China.
Robert Bickers is the author of The Scramble for China: Foreign devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (Allen Lane, 2011).
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- Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, Mao’s Last Revolution (Harvard University Press, 2006)
- Regine Thiriez, Barbarian Lens: Western Photographers of the Qianlong Emperor’s European Palaces (Routledge, 1998)
- Young-tsu Wong, A Paradise Lost: the Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan (University of Hawaii Press, 2001)
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