"..a bardy view!"

Chinese Marbles?

The brouhaha over the Christie's Auction of two Chinese bronze artifacts have reignited the contentious matter of the destruction of the Peking Summer Palace in 1860. 

It has gone down in history as a wanton act of vandalism by the British "barbarians" who, together with the French, ransacked, plundered and torched this "monument" to Chinese excess. I'm coincidently drawn to this subject, having just finished reading "Flashman and the Dragon" – see top right – which deals in depth about the Second Opium War.

The Summer Palace covered five square miles, and comprised of palaces within palaces, holding priceless objects and antiquities. In addition the gardens were regarded as the finest in the world. 

However, before the Chinese (who still bear a grudge) and anyone else complain about this abuse of British Imperial might, it's worth noting that the Chinese people themselves would never have actually seen inside it. Only the very elite, from the "god-like" emperor and his minions, his concubine, mandarins, entourages and eunuchs were privileged to enjoy it. It's what kept the power at the top, and enslaved the people at the bottom.

Lord Elgin (not he who removed the marbles from Greece which now reside in the British Museum – that was his father!) was the British High Commissioner in China during the Second Opium War. He was so horrified at the torture which had been inflicted on captured soldiers and diplomats, that he was wracked with the decision of making the most appropriate response. 

Whilst he would have wished to bring the perpetrators of the torture to justice, he rightly concluded they were merely following orders, and yet he couldn't make an example of the Emperor himself as that would have inflamed the situation more; but at the same time, if he asked for the generals to be handed over, there would be no guarantee he would receive the actual offenders (such was the feudal structure), and more likely he would be sent some slaves with their tongues removed! 

He decided, against the wishes of the French (who incidentally were those who took most of the spoils) to raise Yuanming Yuan (the palace) to the ground – to obliterate it – completely. This would send a message to the populace that their emperor was not omnipotent – that the "barbarians" (as the Chinese regarded the British) were more powerful – and by destroying the symbolism only, thereby not being bloodthirsty in vengeance, sent a message of civilised retribution! 

It  subsequently ensured 40 years of relative stability before the Boxer revolution was to change the face of China forever!

It cannot be overstated how cruel the Chinese behaved towards their captors. Through the annals of conflict in the history of British military records, nothing had been seen like it. 

The Imperial Qing Dynasty was ruthless beyond all measure of torture.

Elgin was prepared to except that torture was a mechanism for extracting information, but in this case he knew that torture was given just for the sheer inhumane pleasure of it. The Chinese employed a particularly vicious tool known as the "wire jacket". 

It was akin to chicken wire, which would be wrapped around the victim's naked body so tightly that his skin would protrude from the holes, like giant boils. These would subsequently be sliced off, at intervals, until the exposed lesions would turn the body into a red and white chequer board! If the unfortunate chap survived it, he would be thrown out and left to fend for himself. Death would have been a relief!

So whilst the wishy-washy liberals complain about British vandalism, and movie stars like Jackie Chan  pontificate about the injustice of these "stolen" treasures now being sold at auction, they must get a history lesson in the realities of how it all came about.

History can be a painful education, and we are often uncomfortable about acts of the past, whether they are slavery, or exploitation, or oppression. 

Every act must be placed in context of the times, and whilst the British have had to undergo much soul searching with regards to their own legacy, it is (at best) extremely hypocritical of the Chinese to adopt an air of the innocent victim.

Their own soul searching has yet to begin!


February 26, 2009 - Posted by | Current Affairs

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