Uncovering Secrets of the British Army Burning Down the Old Summer Palace2016-02-24 10:48:10Share:
There are over ten different accounts of why the British Army burned down the Summer Palace. One version of events, derived from the book, Second Opium War (1965), was that the British Army attempted to conceal evidence of plunder, which is also the version adopted in most mainstream textbooks. Due to the book being published during the Cultural Revolution, some people have doubted its objectivity. However, contemporary historian, Wang Zurong, supported this view in his book, Persuing the Lost Summer Palace (2005), that the reason why Elgin decided to burn down the Summer Palace was to intentionally destroy evidence which led to the belief that the stolen treasure remained lost.
By taking into account the concordance of national sentiment, national standpoint and scientific accuracy of history; it is therefore improper to bypass these features. Cultural sensitivity must be observed when restoring historical truth due to the following critical points: Firstly, claimants of the British Army burning down the Summer Palace in concealment of the truth do not have access to accurate historical records. As historians, no conclusion can be attained without adequate proof. Secondly, people who share this view may be affected by their subjective judgment. The stereotypical plot in costume films and novels is one where a eunuch steals and sells the emperor’s treasure, followed by committing arson to cover up his crime. The irrefutable fact is that the British Army plundered the Summer Palace for three days in broad daylight. It would therefore not be logical to burn the Palace as it would not have obscured the crime. And finally, the British had their own for the burning of the Palace. Grant, a British chief commander, deemed it necessary to impose retaliatory action against the malicious murder of British prisoners by the Qing government.
One crucial question which merits discussion would be whether the British prisoners were indeed tortured to death inside the Summer Palace. If the Qing government ill-treated prisoners, the British Army might then have a reason for committing revenge. However, according to historical data, 39 soldiers were captured and 21 were killed. While some met their demise at the frontline, others were indeed tortured to death in prisons.
Another significant claim was that British prisoners had never been locked up inside the Summer Palace. At th time, both the British and French armies were detained separately. Nine prisoners, represented by Sir Harry Smith Parkes (1828-1885), were arrested during the war and sent directly to the Second Prison in the Board of Punishment. Consequently, the British and French governments submitted official requests to release their soldiers. The Qing government then took the prisoners to the north of Jishuitan near Deshengmen Gate, and onwards to the British military camp outside Deshengmen to circumvent a bomb threat to the city of Peking. The remaining prisoners were held in prisons around Peking – none were contained in the Summer Palace. How could the Qing government detain the barbarians within the confines of a royal garden?
In an article published on March 3rd, 1861, Parkes described how the Qing government arrested him, leading to negotiations, which paved the way for his incarceration and eventual transfer out of the prison. However, none of these things events were described to have occurred within the Summer Palace.
It is easy for a country to honor its glory days, and all the more poignant, albeit important, to recall its disgraces. Gong Zizhen, an ancient Chinese officer, expounded his idea on the relationship between history and the survival of a nation in his work Value of History; that penetrating the laws of social development may be achieved by summing up experiences in history, and the study of history is key to discovering laws of human development.
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