A Beijing taxi driver asked me the other day if I knew about the time foreign soldiers sacked the imperial residence of the Qing, China’s last dynasty.
He was referring to an episode in 1860 that happened in Beijing, during one of the Opium Wars, and his question kind of came out of the blue. So, I was rather delighted with myself for being able to bust out my iPhone and show the guy some pictures I’d taken at the Qing Summer Palace the day before. He tried not to let on, but I’m pretty sure he was impressed.
British and French forces unleashed a spasm of destruction on one of China’s most potent national symbols that year. It was meant to teach the Chinese a lesson. They had just taken a group of Anglo-French citizens hostage, torturing some of them, and murdering others. One British officer who took part in the retribution mission at the palace is quoted in the new book, “Wealth and Power,” by Orville Schell and John Delury. He described the scene with horror on a couple of levels:
“You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the palaces 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 demoralizing work for army.”
Yuanmingyuan’s palace grounds are still quite magnificent. You can buy a ticket and stroll along the same pathways that China’s last emperors presumably did, and take in the graceful views of a park that’s as nice as any you’ve probably seen.
For an extra fee, you can see ruins in one section of the park leftover from the attack by western armies. They have been left as ruins, as Schell and Delury put it, “preserved by the Chinese Communist government, the despoiled palaces remain a glaring showcase of China’s painful treatment by the Western powers, an outdoor museum of victimization.”
I chatted with one woman taking an evening walk past the tumbled-down monument to China’s imperial past. She told me she feels heartbroken every time she visits the place, because it makes her think about what foreigners have done to China over the course of history. This is an important lesson that’s long been part of the mythology of China’s ruling party. Starting with Mao Zedong in the 1950s, the Communists have prided themselves on being the ones who finally managed to put an end to more than a century of Chinese humiliation at the hands of western and Japanese imperialism.
Reporting here over the last week has been a reminder of something I’d sort of forgotten after spending three years in the Middle East. In contrast to that part of the world, where people can sometimes be so enthusiastic about speaking with a foreign reporter that it can become overbearing, Chinese people — especially when approached in public by a tall white man holding a microphone — are often uneasy to the point of appearing downright terrified.
I suspect that regular Chinese folks worry that speaking to a foreign reporter could get them in trouble with the authorities, and doing so is just not worth the risk. It has to be related to the message that Chinese people have been getting from the Party as well. And that is, “beware of foreign intentions.”
For its part, China’s government has been making its feelings toward members of the foreign news media pretty clear lately. I haven’t been doing this kind of reporting, but here is an example of how things can get pretty darn contentious.