European barbarianism in China: ruining the Old Summer Palace

The Old Summer Palace near Peking, for the most part destroyed after Thomas William Bowlby’s tragic death

The Second Opium War (October 8th, 1856-October 24th, 1860) was successfully fought by the British and the French Empire against Imperial China to compel the agonizing Middle Kingdom to fulfill its obligations arising from the (unequal) Treaty of Tientsin in June 1858

After the capture of the northern port of Tientsin by Anglo-French troops on August 23rd, 1860, British diplomats Henry Loch (1827-1900) and Harry Parkes (1828-1885), their military escorts, as well as The Times pioneer correspondent Thomas William Bowlby (born 1818) attended peace negotiations with Chinese officials.

When the talks broke down, Qing General Sengge Rinchen (1811-1865) arrested all members of the delegation. Bowlby and other captives, including colonial Sikh soldiers, were tortured to death over several days.

The two envoys, although treated less barbarically, survived by sheer luck. Emperor Xianfeng (1831-1861) had suddenly ordered their execution, too. They were later able to recover the unfortunates’ remains.

Bowlby’s horrible death and the humiliation that such savage treatment represented for the mighty Empire were the main reason why Lord Elgin (1811-1863), British Plenipotentiary to China, decided to basically erase the Old Summer Palace located eight kilometres northwest of Peking.

Construction of the Emperor’s official residence, originally intended as a gift for his fourth son and successor, Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735), began in 1707 during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722).

The plunder and destruction by 3,500 British (compensated with £48 apiece prize money) and some French started on October 18th, 1860. As the magnificent complex with its extensive gardens extended over more than 3.5 square kilometres, the wretched work lasted for three days.

Relevant quantities of gold ornaments were simply burnt, considered as brass, but many looted artworks are nowadays found in 47 museums around the world. In 1873/74, Emperor Tongzhi (1856-1875) attempted a reconstruction, but the plan was abandoned because of a lack of funding.

Before the British and French brought death and devastation, the last European appearance was a delegation led in 1795 by scholar, merchant and Ambassador Isaac Titsingh (1745-1812), representing the interests of the soon to be dissolved Dutch East India Company.

Without doubt the revengeful destruction and inexcusable looting of priceless art treasures, which on top caused probably hundreds of victims among those trapped inside the buildings, remain a barbaric act.

The man who ordered it, not known to have special sensibility, reportedly told a French commander “What would The Times say of me, if I did not avenge its correspondent?”

Such harsh reaction can also be considered a warning to the Qing Court, which clearly also bears responsibility because of its ruthless behavior, not to use kidnapping (and torture) as a political tactic ever again.

The most visible architectural remains can be found in the Western mansion(s) built in the middle of the 18th century. Interestingly enough, influential Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and Michel Benoist (1715-1774) had planned and designed these European-style structures as well as the fountains and waterworks.

The 15 buildings that originally survived intact, situated in more remote areas or by the lakeside, weren’t carefully plundered in 1860 most likely due to a lack of time.

However, the Old Summer Palace would be sacked again and further damaged in 1900 during the Boxer-Rebellion and in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the last Chinese dynasty in 1911, when remnants were stolen to serve as construction material for luxurious private homes.

The heirs of Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), who came to power in 1949 and never did anything to protect the site, since the 1990s speak of an “open wound” and demand the return of artifacts scattered around the globe.

This is probably to distract attention from the fact that during the bloody process of creating a “New China” they have harmed Chinese culture more than anybody else, blaming European Imperialists instead.

On the 150th anniversary of the incident, coinciding with the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, a bronze statue of French poet, novelist and dramatist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was placed at the site of the ruins.

In a letter from 1861, he had vehemently protested against this kind of cultural barbarism, bluntly calling both involved countries “robbers” and “bandits”. Unfortunately, the great Frenchman was absolutely right…


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