Published: July 1st 2010July 1st 2010
Yesterday my China Foreign Policy class took a tour to the Old Summer Palace, which is just a few bus stops West of our campus. It was quite an afternoon, both relaxing, beautiful, somber, and saddening.
For those of you who don't know the history, I should probably start there. In 1860, the second Opium War was going and some envoys were sent to see a prince under the flag of truce to negotiate. Things didn't go so well and the British, Indian, and French soldiers and the envoys were captured by the Chinese and held for a little while. During this time they were tortured and several of them were brutally killed. When the Brits got them back, they were so appalled, they decided to destroy the Summer Palace. They posted signs in Chinese to warn of their plans ahead of time, and on the date they had set, sent in troops to destroy the place. It's huge, but I guess they had plenty of guys, because they got it all. The Chinese buildings (palaces, pagodas, etc.) at the time were all wood, and they were set ablaze after some looting. The only structures not completely destroyed were the
European style ones, made of marble and stone, and thus a little more difficult to destroy. What wasn't destroyed the first time around was gotten later in the Eight-Nation Invasion or by looters (Chinese and foreign), and anything that remained was gone by the end of the Cultural Revolution. To this day, the sacking of the Summer Palace is a symbol both of Western aggression in China as well as a reminder of how weak the nation once was.
We walked around, and saw only under kept lakes and foliage in what was once the most amazing gardens. We saw the ruins, that rather reminded me of the Forum in Rome, and had a little bit of lecture in the area. As my class (all four of us) posed for a picture, I couldn't help but feel torn between the usual smile one renders when posing for photos in historical or scenic spots, and a more somber expression that seemed a little more appropriate to the setting. However, after seeing enough Chinese tourists posing with smiles, finger 'V's, and children scrambling over the ruins, I decided it was probably OK to relax and take in both the sites and
history, while still being more aware of my standing as a Westerner than ever, and how that might look in some Chinese eyes...
The magnitude of the destruction didn't even really hit me until we found a little museum after a boat ride across one of the lakes. It wasn't really a museum at all, just a building with a miniature-scale reproduction of what the Summer Place once was. It was there that the lose truly hit us. Countless structures across some large acreage (can't recall the number, but it's huge). Lakes, masterfully crafted gardens, pagodas, palaces, temples... My teacher said the best comparison he could make to help us understand the loss would be France having the Louvre, Champs Elyse, and the Arc de Triomphe all destroyed.
All the land is pretty overgrown now, as there has been almost no reconstruction here (there is the New Summer Palace where some parts of the Old Summer Palace were reconstructed and built, but that's another story). All that remains of the beauty that once was are hundreds of water lilies across the ponds and lakes. They are quite possibly the most beautiful flowers I've seen. So vibrant and large
they've grown... and they are the only blossoms to be seen among the overgrown greenage that was once the Summer Palace.
There is still much debate over what to do with the grounds, as some argue for rebuilding while others argue it should stay the reminder it is, many also fearing the "Disneyfication" of history that many Chinese sites have become infamous for. I have mixed feelings on the issue, but it's not for foreigners to decide anyways... I would love to see a restored garden at least, but I understand the view of the people that want it to be the historical site it is, not become a scenic area.
So... that was class yesterday. We took the bus back and got to the campus gate around 5:30. Three of us walked on to get some McDonald's for dinner before heading back on campus (none of us had indulged in a while). I had epic amounts of homework and more application stuff for my upcoming graduation, internships, etc. And actually, I still do, but I'm calling it a night. Haven't been in bed before midnight in a week...
There are more photos below