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Who Burned the Old Summer Palace

2016-03-31 10:10:25Share:

   Very few Chinese people don’t know the burning of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan Park), while a large number of people make a mistake about who really sets fire to the garden. Now and then, we hear people, even some leading media and scholars, tell the story that the Allied Forces of Eight Powers burns Yuanmingyuan Park. Although the 8 powers committed a lot of crimes in China, they were actually “innocent” at the 1860’s burning event, because their aggression happened in 1900, 40 years after the second opium war (1860). Hence, it was the Anglo-French Allied Forces who invaded China in 1860.


  Although the Allied Forces of Eight Powers did do all kinds of invasions in china, the burning of Yuanmingyuan Park was actually not one of it.


Who Burned the Old Summer Palace


  In late September of 1860, the main force of Qing army suffered disastrous defeat in eight mile bridge battle, after which, Emperor Xianfeng, accompanying with his close relatives, escaped from the old Summer Palace to the Chengde summer resort. On October 6, British and French troops began to invade the old Summer Palace zone, with French first, who defeated dozens of eunuch’s last resistance in Xianliang gate (the second entrance to the palace) and occupied the old Summer Palace at the same day. Then, just like we all known, coalition forces launched on robbery in the garden.


  In order to mentally "conquer" the Qing court and even the whole China, Eerjin, the spokesman and full head of British army at that time, said,“we will make china as well as Europe shocking and fearing”, and they determined to burn Xianfeng’s beloved Yuanmingyuan.


  In order to make their atrocities“perfectly justifiable”, British troops took an incident happened before as an excuse for destroying the garden. In September, the Qing army and the allied troops fought in one hand while negotiated in the other hand. The coalition sent a dozen of people’s delegation, headed by the British Parkes to negotiate with the Qing army. The Qing court mistakenly thought that Parkes was the mastermind of this aggressive war and detained the delegates, some of whom died in prison. Although according to nowadays’ research, this group of prisoners are not detained in the old Summer Palace, Eerjin deliberately misinterpreted the fact and fabricated a rumor that the delegation members are died of mistreating in the old Summer Palace, and he also said they will take a revenge targeting at Yuanmingyuan Park. French performance is relatively restrained. Gros, the representative of French side rebuked Eerjin’s plan "as brutal as the Goths ", and Montauban, the French army commander was also against the burning plan, calling the move "completely inconsistent with a civilized country ".


  Elgin, the full authority ambassador during 1860’s aggressive time, obsessively determined to burn Yuanmingyuan Park, regardless of the moral pressure and ally’s opposition. He is undoubtedly the chief culprit of the destruction of“the garden of gardens”.


  Eventually, on October 18th and 19th, to obey the orders of Elgin, the British army set wood and began to burn in the old Summer Palace. They light the woods in different spots and thus Changchun, Yeechun and YuanMing three gardens began to blaze up at the same time, turning the whole park into a great fire. The six ministries’ waiting room out of the Great Palace Gate (the main entrance of Yuanmingyuan), the ceremonial guards’ duty room , Imperial Household Department’s duty room, Chenghuai garden (Academician garden),Horse Charging Court, Arms Equipment Court, En’mu Temple in Changchun Park , Enyou Temple, Reviewing Troops building in Xiyuan, Qingxi reading room, as well as other buildings were all ruined in this big fire.


Who Burned the Old Summer Palace


  Only some buildings located in a remote corner or on lake survived in this disaster, while the western style’s building area, northern part of Changchun garden, had been damaged relatively light thanks to its masonry basement. According to a British account, after the fire, Yuanmingyuan only "leave an empty desolate land, everywhere is the rubble which unable to describe ". The following days, even during daytime, British army camps at the Summer Palace “had become dim” because of the smoke all over the sky.


  Peng Island YaoTai, one of 40 landscapes in Yuanmingyuan, is a silk scroll with colored drawing pattern. Located in the central of Fu Sea, It became a minority of the "survivors" because the British army had no ships.


  Hence, broadly speaking, the criminals in 1860’s burning were British and French troops ,while in deeply saying, “the two robbers”, just like Hugo mentioned in the famous wrote back to captain butler,“British and French are two robbers, one looting while the other setting a fire”, is actually a partial referring. “The Fire Robber” is mainly refers to British army represented by Eerjin.


  On the manuscript of wrote back to captain butler, Hugo said, “Two European robbers invades Yuanmingyuan, one looting treasures while the other setting a great fire.” Actually, “The Fire Robber” especially refers to British aggressive army.


  From "burned" to "destroyed": the old Summer Palace experiences “four disasters”.


  Although the old Summer Palace was burned, it had not been abandoned yet. There were still duty rooms to safeguard the palace, not allowing people to enter the park randomly. Firstly, the British wanted to level the whole Palace, but as last they can’t achieve their aim since the three parks are too broad to destroy completely. In Tongzhi 12 years (1873), proposals were made to rebuild Yuanmingyuan and the Imperial Household Department had ever sent officials to survey the site. At that time, 13 scenic spots had not been destroyed yet, namely: Double Crane Room, Purple Blue Mountain Room, Fish Diving and Kite Flying, Plow Cloud Hall, Thought Forever, Thought Lesson Hall, Agricultural Class Veranda, Shunmutian, Solemn Fajie, Spring Rain Veranda, Apricot Blossom Village, Wenchang loft, and Kuixing building . in addition, some buildings were also survived in this disaster, such as Yuanmingyuan Great North Gate, Algal Garden Gate, Fuyuan Gate, Beautiful Spring Gate , Peng Island YaoTai, Linyuanjinjing (Zao garden), Boat Dock, Changchun Palace Gate, Haiyuekaijing, colored glaze tower of Fahui Temple, Yee spring park New Gate, Enlightenment Temple, Carry Material Gate, etc. Except for the surviving buildings, the old Summer Palace then still had a lot of rare flowers and trees, landscape stones and building bases. Most of the bridges, roads, garden walls and garden doors were still in good condition.


  In 1873, Emperor Tongzhi rebuilt Yuanmingyuan and ordered the sample department to make a sample for it, thus Yuanmingyuan had been got the maintenance and repair. The rebuilding project showed that the old Summer Palace then is far from irrecoverable ruins.


  Then, what exactly happened to Yuanmingyuan after the burning, and what on earth made the old summer palace further decline until today’s miserable condition?


  If not speaking frankly, you may not believe that the two photos were taken from the same landscape----western building Haiyan hall, in which a fountain decorated with 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac had been ever placed. The photo above was taken by German Ohlmer in 1973, while the one beneath shows today’s condition of it. It illustrates that many landscapes in the old summer palace has experienced great changes since after the fire.


  Roughly speaking, the old Summer Palace suffers “four disasters” from the recent history, and the burning in 1860 is just the first one. Formerly said that the Allied Forces of Eight Powers were “innocent” at the burning event, but they did need take some responsibilities for the destruction. Although there is no real evidence nowadays illustrates that the Allied Forces of Eight Powers directly plunder and destroy the old Summer Palace, its aggression causes the west fled of emperor and empress, which leads to a hollow city out of control. The stragglers and bandits rascal of western suburbs entered the old Summer Palace randomly, and continued to loot the remaining building and furniture. A large number of ancient trees were cut down, or even sold out as charcoal burners. The QingHe Town, which is adjacent to Yuanmingyuan, had even become the timber market at that time, with the timbers from Yuanmingyuan piled up as high as mountains. that is called “the wood disaster”,during which the surviving buildings after the burning and part of the reconstruction results made by Emperor Tongzhi were almost ruined totally.


  In 1900, the g8 coalition forces aggressed against China and occupied Beijing, after which Empress Dowager Cixi and Emperor Guangxu fled hurriedly to Xi’an, making Beijing city’s order out of control, especially in northwest landscape area. Archers and bandits nearby looted Yuanmingyuan again taking advantage of the disorder.


  With the fall of the Qing dynasty, the old Summer Palace lost the "talisman" of royal palace garden. During the republican period of China, there was one article named “royal original private property protection” among “Preferential treating conditions”towards the Qing royal, while the emperor basically had already had no right to control the old Summer Palace any more. The Warlords and the bureaucrats began to raid during this time: Wang Huaiqing, the garrison commander, demolished the inside and outside walls of Yuanmingyuan to built his own garden with its stone; Zhang Zhuoling, though in the far northeast then, also carried away the stone materials from the old Summer Palace to build his personal tomb; In 1925, Yanjing university’s Zhai priest, with the name of protecting cultural relics, removed Huabiao(ornamental columns erected in front of palaces, tombs, etc.)in front of Anyou Palace, to Yanjing campus, which remained standing at Peking University teaching building at the west gate. This is called “stone disaster”, which is a fatal damage towards the well-preserved stone buildings inside the old summer palace at that time.


  Ever since the 20th century, the old Summer Palace has been almost in a condition that no management at all, then farmers started to enter the park: leveling mountain and filling lake, digging field and planting rice, randomly pulling clay brick production as building material, and this situation continued until the 60s and 70s "cultural revolution" period. According to the statistics showed in 1967, among the original mountains in Yuanmingyuan, 40% were dug flat; while among the original 2000 plus mu of water surface, about 100 mu were filled. This is called "soil disaster", and the mountain shape and water system in the old Summer Palace has been suffered serious damages to this point.


  As of the invaders’ cruel burning, Yuanmingyuan has been experienced and suffered "four disasters" successively during the hundred-plus years, and thus becomes what we see today.