Sunday, October 19, 2008

Decisive Battles: Destruction of the Summer Palace, 1860

The Destruction of the Summer Palace Date: October 6-21, 1860

Forces Engaged:
Anglo-French: (6 OCT 1860) Mixed force of British and French looters; probably 2-3,000 in all (18-21 OCT 1860) Michel's Division of the British Expeditionary Force: about 3,500 troops)

Imperial Chinese: (6 OCT 1860) 20 to 50 Imperial eunuchs armed with toy bows and ceremonial swords; slaughtered to a...well, you can't really say "to a man"...to a eunuch, then.The Situation: You can find innumerable discussions, animadversions, retorts and discursions in historical texts about why the British and French invaded north-central China in 1860, but take it from me, the bottom line was pride and power.

The Imperial China of Manchu times was pretty rotten. The Manchus, fairly sinicized since their takeover of the Ming Empire in 1644, were the worst of foreign dynastic rulers; corrupt, inefficient, brutal and irrational.

But they were the rulers of an empire older than Rome and had nothing but contempt for the noisy, arrogant, upstart pink-skinned barbarians from the West. Like poor whites in the American South believing that at least they were better than the blacks, if their rule was hated, their technology antique and their people squalid and neglected, well, still, as Sons of Han the least thread from their trousers was the better of the most gaudy Western finery.

The repeated defeats their army were handed by the barbarians? A bagatelle. The continued decay of the Qing imperium? Ridiculous.The notion that a bunch of ignorant foreigners could dictate terms to the Imperial Throne? Laughable.

The only people as arrogant and intransigent as the imperial mandarins of the Xianfeng Emperor were the Englishmen of Victoria's Britain. So when the Chinese government rejected what we would consider a raft of insanely unreasonable demands (including opening all of China to British merchants, legalizing the trade in opium that was bankrupting and corrupting China, exemption of British trade from tariffs and other fees, oh, and for the English-language version of all treaties to take precedence over the Chinese...) the British answer was to look for and seize on a reason for war. They found it in several "incidents", including the "Arrow Incident" and the "Chapdelane Incident". Off-and-on fighting ranged from the Pearl River in southern China (1857) to central China around Nanjing and Shanghai (1958-59) until finally, in the summer of 1860 a 17,000-man Anglo-French force pushed past the Taku Forts to deliver the European ambassadors to the court in Beijing. The main phase of the Second Opium War had begun.

The Sources: Most of the sources for the war as a whole, and for the destruction of the Summer Palace in particular, are from the European side. By Victorian times both daily papers and personal memoirs gave widespread access to battle and campaign pieces. The Chinese archives, what little remain from a chaotic period in imperial history, reflect the then-unshakable belief in the might of the Qing imperium. Almost nothing is said of imperial defeats, including these discussed here.

The Campaign: The Anglo-French campaign was simplicity itself: march northwest up the Peiho River to Beijing. The fact that the Europeans were vastly outnumbered was practically meaningless; the Qing "army" was in fact a useless antique, a practically embalmed version of the troops that won the Battle of Shanhaiguan back in 1644. It took the European force about a month after the battles at the Taku Forts in August, 1860 to march from the mouth of the Peiho to Beijing. The delay was only because of the endless negotiations and prevarications thrown up by the imperial court - the Qing army was not much above a nuisance. The only significant engagement, at Palikao or "Eight-Mile Bridge", was a pathetic walkover that butchered as many as 10-20,000 Manchu and Chinese troops for the loss of perhaps a thousand or so from the expeditionary army. The Chinese military just flat out sucked. There's no other word for it.The Europeans invested Beijing in the last week of September but delayed entering the city in hopes of the return of prisoners, including several diplomats captured during a parley on the 18th of September. Finally, realizing that the imperial leadership would not negotiate in earnest, the British commander Sir Hope Grant sent British and French troops around to the north of the city on October 6th, taking the Imperial capital without a significant fight. The first European troops entered the Summer Palaces that evening.

The Xianfeng Emperor officially capitulated on terms on the 18th of October, 1860. It was only later in that day that the imperial envoys produced the bodies of the twenty prisoners, including two of the British diplomatic party and a London Times correspondent. The murders, and the calculated insult in delaying the return of the bodies until after the main Imperial officers and Imperial family were protected by the treaty terms, infuriated the European force and the European envoys.The British envoy, Lord Elgin, decided that the utter destruction of the two Imperial Summer palaces, the New Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan) and Old Summer Palace (Yuánmíng Yuán), were a fitting punishment for Imperial treachery and murder as well as a tutelary episode for the people of the imperial capital.The Battle: Strictly speaking there was no "battle" at the Summer Palaces. Western accounts of the initial entry into the palaces records that a handful of the eunuchs of the inner palace attempted to "defend" the palaces with flimsy ceremonial or decorative weapons. They were butchered.The palaces, which according to Westerners who had seen them, were sanctuaries of exquisite art and craftsmanship, had been extensively looted by the French troops that initially stormed them on 6 OCT, as well as British and French stragglers and many of the local Chinese as well over the next several days.The actual destruction of the palaces carried out after Elgin's orders was methodical and thorough, as you can see by the pictures throughout this account. Michel's troops did an especially thorough job of the "Old Summer Palace", the 圓明園 or Yuánmíng Yuán. The then-young officer who would become known to history as "Chinese" Gordon, Gordon of Khartoum, wrote:
"We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army."


The summer palaces are said to have burned for three days, the pall of smoke louring over Beijing to the south and impressing the final defeat of the Qing imperial troops on all the citizens of the capital.

It should be noted that not all of the destruction you see in the pictures dates from the 1860 war. Although the "Old" Summer Palace was never rebuilt the "New" Summer Palace to the west was not as badly damaged and was largely restored before the repeated destruction by Western troops in the "Boxer Rebellion" of 1900.

Further damage took place during the Cultural Revolution. Again, the "New" Summer Palace was rebuilt or restored by the Communist regime. The "Old" Palace was too badly damaged; it is a ruin to this day.For the record, I personally can understand, or at least cannot wholeheartedly condemn, the destruction of the Summer Palace. Elgin had been tricked, meanly tricked, by the Imperials, who had found a way to literally get away with murder. He wanted to find a way to punish them for that, and he did.

What I can, and do, is condemn the entire war that set the destruction in train. The European nations had no business forcing their commerce or anything else on China. If the rulers of that nation wished to be left alone, or trade on their own rules, then the only rights we and the French and British and all the other westerners (and the Japanese, let's not forget them!) had and have, was and is the right to butt the hell out.But the brutal torture and murder of helpless captives in 1860 set the Qing Imperial rulers and their creatures beyond the bounds of civilized human beings, a lesson we with our secret prisons and tortured prisoners would do well to remember.

It's worth recalling, too, that the Summer Palace, at the time it was destroyed, was no museum or public treasure. It was the private pleasure garden of the Imperial nobility, built by extractions from, and no benefit of, their own people. If a punishment needed to be made on the Imperial court for acts of barbarity, the destruction of their most prized private possession, as barbarous as it was, seems as fitting as any and more fitting than most.Would you condemn Lord Elgin, whose revenge cost the lives of a handful of eunuchs, when our revenge for offenses such as Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center cost and are costing the lives of thousands, each life, regardless of its purpose, more unique and less replaceable than any garden, no matter how lovely?

The Outcome: Complete Qing Imperial Chinese defeat, with significant consequences over the following 100 years.The Impact: It is difficult to overstate the effect that the destruction of the Summer Palace had on the Chinese people. As a symbol of Western power and ruthlessness, as a totem for the "Unequal Treaties" that, among other thing, made Chinese second-class citizens in their own country, the destruction of the Summer Palace has long stood for everything hateful about foreign invasion and domination to a China that spent a long time being reminded that long history and rich culture were no match for the repeating rifle and the armored warship. To this day the current dynastic rulers of China - "communist" now rather than imperial but driven by many of the same imperatives - have chosen not to even attempt to rebuild the Old Summer Palace.It remains a ruin, a wordless cry of outrage against the foreign invader that reduced it to scattered stones and silent water.

Touchline Tattles: The Old Summer Palace is vividly portrayed in G.M. Fraser's "Flashman and the Dragon" in which the irrepressible hero of the author's historical series stallions the Imperial Concubine Yi,

the later Dowager Empress CiXi, whom he seems to have found more than usually taking. Amatory romping aside, the volume is the usual bounty of historical detail and delightful anecdote.

Flash Harry (of course) is in at the death, and perhaps we should leave the final word on the Summer Palace and its Imperial benefactress to him:
"...the great pall of smoke, many miles in extent, covering he country to the distant hills, with ugly patches of flame behind it, and here and there a break wre you could see a blazing building, or a smouldering ruin, or a pool of dull gray water that had been a shining lake, or even a white palace, untouched amid the green. It looked pretty much like hell."

"I'm not saying Elgin was wrong; it achieved what he wanted, without his having to break down a door or smash a window or set a match. That's the great thing about policy, and why the world is such an infernal place: the man who makes the policy don't have to carry it out, and the man who carries it out ain't responsible for the policy. Which is how our folk were tortured to death and the Summer Palace was burned."

"But didn't a tear mist my eye, or a lump rise in my throat; didn't I turn away at last with a manly sob? Well, no. Yes, as the chap remarked, it was a shame so many pretty things were spoiled - but I'm no great admirer of objects d'art, myself; they just bring out the worst in connoisseirs and female students. But even you, Flashman, surely to God, must have been moved at the destruction of so much beauty, in a spot where you had spent so many idyllic hours? Well, again, no.

You see, I don't live there; I'm here, in Berkeley Square, and when I want to visit the Summer Palace, I can close my eyes, and there it is, and so is she."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice article. I would love to follow you on twitter. By the way, did anyone learn that some chinese hacker had busted twitter yesterday again.