Looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War 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’.Emperor Xianfeng, (1831-1861) Palace Museum

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. Ancient Gate Ruins Pillars Old Summer Palace Yuanming Yuan Beijing China Old Summer Palace was destroyed by British and French Army in 1860

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.https://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/opinion/loot-chinas-old-summer-palace-beijing-still-rankles

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. 

Emperor Xianfeng, (1831-1861) Palace MuseumBy 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. 

ElginChina 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


By Hector Davie

The lust for looting other cultures' artefacts is as old as time, and destruction is all too common an act of war. Recording buildings and artefacts is an urgent task - if there is enough virtual reality, it will not matter if the Elgin Marbles are in Great Russell Street or up on the Acropolis. But until then, Hugo's abhorrence is the only reaction. And virtual reality will not help poor Looty either.

By Tim Myatt

Looting has been both a recognised 'reward' and concern for armies for generations. My DPhil research looked at items looted and collected during the 1904 British Mission to Tibet, and what became of them. Unsurprisingly, Oxford's museums have a generous helping of the spoils of war.

By N. C. Reilly

With all this handwringing over looting over historical artefacts, it must be admitted that sometimes nasty historical events can have beneficial unintended consequences. The surviving loot from the sacking of the Summer Palace has largely survived and been well taken care of in private and public collections outside of China. Had those items been in China during the Cultural Revolution, perhaps none would have surviving the wanton destruction deliberately visited on priceless artefacts during that time. Over 60% of the artefacts removed from the Forbidden City have been lost due to looting and theft - the remainder survived the Cultural Revolution by being safely kept in the fantastic National Palace Museum in Taipei. It's a little hypocritical but not unusual of the present day Communist government in Beijing to blame Western powers for widespread looting of China's treasures in 19th century wars when they themselves have visited far greater destruction on their own heritage in the 20th. Perhaps it might be a littel much to ask that they express a bit more gratitude for the safekeeping of their own heritage which no thanks to them have been kept outside China.

By Peter Hulse

Or, probably more accessibly, George McDonald Fraser's novel "Flashman and the Dragon". Flashman, predictably, sides wholly with Elgin.


These atrocious attacks by imperialist powers seeking to impose their wills on other States should be unreservedly condemned and the loot returned. The people of Benin are still waiting for the return of the precious Benin bronzes looted in Benin in the notorious Punitive Exhibition by the British army and later sold by the Foreign Secretary. The British Museum and other institutions are still holding illegally a number of the looted artefacts. Similarly looted items from Ethiopia, China, Ghana and other countries should be returned if we are ever to have a peaceful world. Many Western scholars do not seem to realize how strong feelings about such injustice are.
Attempts to present the illegal holding of looted items as some kind of rescue operation, before or after the attack and burning, do not convince anyone.
They are in any case no excuse for still keeping the loot. If we save our neighbour's property from fire or flood, we should return it after the danger is over.
Kwame Opoku.

By Martin Fiennes

You mention JH Dunne, and his bringing back Looty, but equally interesting is the passage in his remarkable memoirs "From Calcutta to Pekin" (you can read it on-line on google) about the looting - pages 124-137, which finishes "Lay down very tired, and with the conclusion that plundering a palace was, after all, anything but an amusing occupation. It brings out the worst passions of one's nature - avarice and covetousness amongst others. Every one is dissatisfied with what he has got, because he thinks some one else has done better; and I believe every one feels more or less lowered in his own estimation, by the inward knowledge of what his feelings are on the occasion."

By David Javid

Since the principal designers were the Lai family throughout China's Qing Dynasty, the style of items Giuseppe Castiglione and Benoist designed were deemed sloppy and of imperial quality, the over lord even jailed a missionary for this, (whom was later released by Qianlong via Castiglione, whom was a high ranking person as well) As for the mutilations which caused the sacking to take place, seems nothing has changed with mankind's mannerism with attacks on other people for greed and revenge, forcing a nation into use of narcotics via opium wars, rape of Nanjing and so on, will man kind ever learn from their mistakes?

By DC Chang

While the loot of Chinese artifacts from the sack of Peking in 1860 will probably never be returned to China, more egregious looting that took place in 1907-1908 at Dunhuang virtually emptied a treasure house of paintings and manuscripts from a secret library, dating back to the Tang Dynasty 7th-10th century. The loot now resides in the British Museum, Guimet Museum and the Hermitage among other places. This culltural heritage of China should be returned to China.

By Cheah

Every British and French tourist to China must visit the Summer Palace and have a good interpreter to educate them on what their ancestors have done to China - pillage, rape, destroyed, plundered, murdered everything the Chinese hold dear to them.

Yet, here you have warped-minded people like N.C. Reilley who twist things and say that thanks to the British and French looters who took home countless priceless treasures as they would have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution!

How outrageous!

While it may be true that the Cultural Revolution saw much upheavals, it is utterly wrong to mislead less informed people that the Chinese would destroy precious things from places like the Summer Palace. The Cultural Revolution is targeted mainly at old customs and ideas and perhaps in some isolated cases, some Confucian artefacts could have been damaged or destroyed.

Reilly's excuse probably to protect his bandit ancestors is typical of Western evil behaviours and is similar to the many excuses to invade and destroy Middles Eastern countries using IS/ISIL/terrorism as an excuse. Same with 9/11. Who funds and breed some factions of IS? Which country?

All those loots taken from anywhere in China including the Summer Palace must be returned to China. It is a shame that they have to be bought by wealthy and patriotic Chinese from the descendants of these robbers and murderers.

If Reilley is British then he should know that Britain has a long history of plundering and piracy and the destruction of the Spanish Armada is one example of the British royalty's piracy on the high seas.

If Reilley is an American, he should be even more ashamed as his ancestors robbed the Red Indians of vast swathed of land and right till today, the USA foreign policy is one of aggression, global hegemonistic imperialism.