Looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War
By Tiffany Jenkins
“Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain.”
So raged the French novelist, Victor Hugo, at the sack of the Summer Palace during the Second Opium War. The Eighth Earl of Elgin — the son of the Lord Elgin who acquired the Parthenon Marbles — plundered the treasures of the Beijing Palace in 1860, together with the French army, and then ordered his soldiers to set it on fire.
The Chinese government estimates that about 1.5 million items were taken. Whilst this figure is speculative, even Elgin emphasised the size of the place and the scale of pillaging, writing: “There was not a room I saw in which half the things had not been taken away or broken in pieces.” So acquisitive were they that they lifted the Empress’s Pekingese dog, which was presented to Queen Victoria and christened ‘Looty’.
The term loot came to be a badge of honour, demonstrating imperial humiliation, as suggests the stamp on this gilt metal box, up for grabs a few years ago at the auctioneers Woolley & Wallis, where a fine and rare Chinese Qing dynasty Imperial gilt container sold, bearing the inscription — "Loot from the Summer Palace, Pekin, Oct. 1860.”
But the catalogue doesn't go into the details of how the object was obtained.
The Summer Palace – Yuan Ming Yuan in Chinese - was built during the 18th and early 19th century. Described by Victor Hugo as a “masterpiece”, a “dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace”, it was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty lived and handled government affairs, a grand complex of buildings and gardens.
British troops looted the palace in order to punish the Imperial Court which had refused to allow Western embassies inside Beijing, during the Second Opium War, and in retaliation for the brutal torture and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners.
The soldiers tore into the multiple rooms, grabbing and smashing the delicate porcelain and jade works of art, ripping down the elaborate textiles, looking for gold and silver and anything else they could get their hands on. ‘[T]hey seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity,’ observed Deputy-Assistant Quartermaster General Garnet Wolseley, describing how, ‘in body and soul they were absorbed in one pursuit, which was plunder, plunder’.
Elgin instructed the soldiers to set the buildings on fire. Soldiers burned the libraries and rare books, then all of the palaces: the temples, halls, pavilions, the Jade Fountain Park, and the grand Main Audience Hall with its marble floor. Elgin appears to have experienced feelings of regret about the acts he sanctioned: ‘Plundering and devastating a place like this is bad enough but what is worst is the waste and breakage.’ Despite these reservations, he remained resolute about the action. Plundering and burning the palace was unquestionably the best option available. Elgin elaborated: “It was the Emperor’s favourite residence, and its destruction could not fail to be a blow to his pride as well as his feelings.” It is said to have taken over 4000 men and 3 days to leave it a blackened shell.
The usual practice was to auction the booty through official channels when back in Britain, but in this instance Major General Gordon departed from the norm, and held the sale immediately. The items were sold on the spot and the money realised was distributed between the men according to rank.
In Britain, the arrival of the treasures served as material proof of British dominance and the humiliation of the Chinese. Many of the objects were sent to Queen Victoria, where they took their place alongside other spoils from the victories of the British army. A large collection was sent to France, whose soldiers had also taken part in the pillaging. Pekinese dogs were taken from the palace and brought to Europe, including Looty, seized by a captain J. Hart Dunne and later presented to Queen Victoria; it lived at Windsor Castle for a further eleven years.
By the 1870s, the treasures began to enter museums. Displaying the objects as war loot demonstrated the power of the British army over the Chinese emperor, so they were often promoted as loot rather than art, in a story that emphasised British victory and domination. Art and objects were proudly labelled ‘From the Summer Palace of the Emperor of China’. Indeed, the kudos was such that it is likely that more items were labelled loot than actually were.
We know that the Royal Engineers Museum at Chatham in Kent has a collection of chinoiserie brought back by General Gordon, including a large imperial couch with dragon carvings. The V&A has one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese art in the West. On display are spectacular treasures from Yuan Ming Yuan, including a pair of cloisonné fishbowls, a filigree headdress with blue feathers and pearls, beautiful jade vases, and elaborately embroidered silk robes.
Since the late 1990s, the destruction of the Summer Palace has become a sensitive issue in China, seen as part of a ‘century of humiliation’ when the country not only defeated in the Opium Wars, but lost Taiwan and suffered from Japanese invasions. Efforts have been made to retrieve the objects and art ransacked during this period, especially those from the Summer Palace, where there is now a viewing area where visitors can watch the restoration of objects that the Chinese are starting to bring back, primarily through purchase at auction.
China is concentrating on buying items as they come up at sales, but these are extraordinarily expensive. So as well as collectors paying large sums for the artefacts, there is a programme of researching the institutions and collectors where they may have ended up: perhaps with the hope of one day applying diplomatic pressure. At the end of 2009, a team of Chinese experts on cultural relics visited the United States. Eight major organisations, including the Metropolitan in New York, permitted them to look through their stores. A spokesperson for the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said France and Britain will be next on their list.
The broader problem is that cultural heritage is increasingly a major political question. In the last couple of decades it has become the tool of different interests groups and nations to assert themselves domestically and internationally. Spats quickly develop into vicious grandstanding where claimants compete to show just how badly they were treated. Unfortunately, not only does this fail to resolve differences, it overshadows the glorious objects at the centre of the arguments.
Victor Hugo’s wish, that the ‘booty” is returned to “despoiled China”, may one day be granted. Although sadly it is too late for poor Looty.
Tiffany Jenkins' Keeping Their Marbles is published by Oxford University Press
Images © Shutterstock, Oxford University Press, Wikipedia