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Lord Elgin’s Revenge: The Burning of the Chinese Emperor’s Summer Palace

Opium Wars

During two Opium Wars fought between Britain and China, Chinese troops were so stoned that the British sometimes suffered no casualties. If Cheech & Chong ever make an historical epic, they might consider the wars fought over the opium trade in China.

The 19th Century Narco-traffickers of Britain

Lord Elgin

The 8th Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to China during the second Opium War, burned down the museum-quality Summer Palace of the Chinese emperor in retaliation for the torture and murder of British POWs.

By 1860, Great Britain had reached a military, literary and artistic ascendancy not seen perhaps since Suetonius’s Rome.

That year, Dickens published his masterpiece, Great Expectations. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was a bestseller despite its arcane subject matter. Matthew Arnold was proofreading his gloss of Homer at Oxford. And William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti were about to launch the Arts and Crafts movement.

Also that year, a Scottish earl – Britain’s ambassador to China and the son of a world-famous art preservationist - burned down the Xianfeng Emperor’s Summer Palace, a baroque jewel and repository of priceless antiquities outside Peking.

burning of summer palace

Anglo-British troops loot the Summer Palace before torching it.

The destruction of the Summer Palace, known as Yuanminguyan or Yuen-Ming-Yuen by the Chinese, was the climactic act of the second of two Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) between Britain and China.

The order was given by Britain’s plenipotentiary to China, James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, a direct descendant of the Bruce and son of the seventh Earl who sent the Parthenon’s friezes to Britain.

Lord Elgin set fire to the emperor’s palace in retaliation for the mutilation and/or murder of 20 English and Indian POWS, who had been seized while under a flag of truce and imprisoned at the emperor’s weekend retreat just outside the walls of Peking.

Lord Elgin chose the palace to personally punish the emperor without harming his subjects. The Earl posted a proclamation in Chinese throughout Peking providing a justification for his orders and the date they would be carried out.

The Chinese were said to have laughed at the bad grammar on the placards despite their ominous content, which was recorded in Henry Loch’s Personal Narrative of Occurrences During Lord Elgin’s Second Embassy to China in 1860:

“That no individual, however exalted, could escape from the responsibility and punishment which must always follow the commission of acts of falsehood and deceit; that Yuen-Ming-Yuen would be burnt on the 18th [October 1860], as a punishment inflicted on the emperor for the violation of his word, and the act of treachery to a flag of truce; that as the people were not concerned in these acts no harm would befall them, but the Imperial Government alone would be held responsible."

It’s hard to understand why Elgin considered the emperor personally culpable for the POWs’ torture and murder since it was well known and an international scandal that the ruler of China was an alcoholic-opium addict who devoted himself to affairs of the harem and left those of state to his younger brother, two termagant wives and a byzantine court of dueling eunuchs and mandarins.

The Summer Palace was not only Xianfeng’s home away from his principal home, the Winter Palace within the city walls, it was also a library and art gallery spread over 80 square miles of a park with formal gardens that rivaled Versailles’ geometric greenery.

The compound’s 200 buildings overflowed with gifts for the emperor from “tribute-bearing barbarians” who wished to do business with the Imperial court, including a series of British envoys whose lavish bribes failed to sway Emperors spoiled by the shower of gifts that had come to them from all over the world for centuries.

The treasure-trove housed libraries with original and irreplaceable manuscripts, paintings, and thousands of bolts of silk, which had been coveted and export to the West since the days of the Roman Empire.

In his 1975 history of the two Opium Wars, Jack Beeching has described the incalculable value of the real estate that was lost to posterity: “The Summer Palace was the treasure-house of China – such a concentration of visual beauty, artifice and wealth as neither existed nor could once again have been brought into being anywhere else in the world. Here had been brought together and put in order irreplaceable libraries and collections of splendid paintings.”

The grounds were as impressive as the buildings and the treasures they contained. The flat landscape had been transformed into a “Chinese fairyland,” in Beeching’s phrase, with earth excavated to create artificial hills and lakes surrounded by weeping willows and dotted with water lilies. Marble bridges with Palladian balustrades spanned the waters.

Tiled pagodas rose from man-made islands in the lakes, which were stocked with goldfish. Herds of imported deer wandered the grounds, snuggling up to visitors like the denizens of a petting zoo, as tame and friendly as household pets because they had never learned to fear hunters.

The Hall of Audience contained a rosewood throne from which the Emperor greeted foreign emissaries prostrate before him on the marble floor in the style of Byzantium. The disengaged Emperor, forsaking real battles, played with his fleet of toy warships on the lakes. Miniature bonsai-like trees grew out of gardens of twisted rock.

In 1747, two Jesuit priests and amateur architects, the Italian Giuseppe Castiglione and the French Michel Benoit, in collaboration with the German Ignatius Sickelpart and the Florentine Bonavetnura Moggi, designed two neo-baroque palaces with roofs of gold for the Qianlong Emperor, based on their recollection of Versailles’s Le Grand Trianon.

The Francophile Qianlong had ordered his foreign architects to create a residence in "the manner of European barbarians." Qianlong, like most xenophobic Chinese, loathed the barbarians but loved their architecture. To complete the European flavor of the grounds, the architects designed Disney-like trompe l’oeil streets (optical illusions) that would have looked at home in Paris or Florence, a Potemkin village that deceived no one and delighted all.

Into this fairyland of art and architecture, on the sunny but frosty day of October 18, 1860, Major-General Sir John Michel led the British First Division through the East Palace Gate of the complex, which had already been looted and vandalized by the French and British two weeks before.

But many delectable prizes of war remained for hungry soldiers, a buffet of bronzes, enamels, clocks, silks, furs and jade. The intruders came upon the undisturbed living quarters of the Emperor and helped themselves to his cap, pipe and satin pillows embroidered with dragons and flowers in the Imperial color of yellow.

A French chaplain was shocked when he found the Emperor’s pornography collection next to the sovereign’s bed in a lacquer box.

Sir John’s troops began to systematically burn the 200 buildings and grounds, a tinderbox because many of the structures were made of wood.

Darting between the flames, the soldiers were allowed free rein to take the gold and objets d’art that earlier looters had overlooked. One Indian officer made off with £9,000 worth of gold, approximately £72,000 or $115,000 today.

Unlike his commander-in-chief, Lord Elgin, Sir John felt uncomfortable carrying out his assignment and disobeyed orders by not torching the exquisite Ya-tsing Pagoda on the grounds of the palace because he was “struck by its simple beauty, and spared it as a work of art.”

The Major-General’s humanitarian/antiquarian gesture was worthy of Alexander the Great saving the poet Pindar’s home while decimating the rest of ancient Thebes.

It took two days for the living museum to burn to the ground. Yuen-Ming-Yuen was said to have inspired Coleridge’s opium-fueled dream which he recorded in verse -- “In Xanadu did Kublai Khan\A stately pleasure-dome decree” - a bricks and mortar and marble embodiment of the poet’s Xanadu:

“Twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.”

Art historians later said that the burned out buildings of the palace compound resembled some Romantic Victorian rendering of a faux ancient ruin by a set designer with a febrile imagination.

In The Arrow War, Douglas Hurd wrote,

“For the most part the site looks prehistoric, showing only mounds, ditches and lakes as if they were traces of some long-vanished civilization.

"But the outer walls of the stone buildings designed by the Jesuits survived the fire, and have only slowly crumbled in the intervening century; broken baroque arches and intricate fallen capitals overgrown with flowers suggest a folly contrived by some romantic lord to close a visit.”

Excerpted from The Opium Wars: The Addiction of One Empire and the Corruption of Another by Frank Sanello, Sourcebooks (2002)

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The rebuilding of the Summer Palace.

While it was undoubtedly an act of great cultural vandalism to burn the palace, rebuilding it gave The Empress Dowager something to do in her temporary retirement. It also gave her an excuse to divert huge amounts from the treasury to pay for it.

Thanks for another really interesting article.