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.

A Troublesome Egg to Hatch by J.S. Pughe, a satire from 1901 on the European powers’attempts to exploit China as the US and Japan look on.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.

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