The Destruction of the Yuanmingyuan

10.26.2020 - By Barbarians at the Gate

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Yuanmingyuan, the "Garden of Perfect Brightness," commonly referred to as the Old Summer Palace, was a Qing Dynasty imperial residence comprised of hundreds of buildings, halls, gardens, temples, artificial lakes, and landscapes, covering a land area five times that of the Forbidden City, and eight times the size of Vatican City. This expansive compound, once referred to by Victor Hugo as "one of the wonders of the world," now exists only as a sprawl of scattered ruins on the northern outskirts of Beijing, having been thoroughly burned and looted by French and British over three days in October of 1860, in the aftermath of the Second Opium War.
The razed remnants of the glorious gardens have been left in place by the Chinese government as an outdoor museum of China's "Century of Humiliation" at the hands of the foreign powers. On the 160th anniversary of the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, Jeremiah and David discuss the political and cultural clashes that led to the action, the significance of the incident for China's national self-image, and the government's attempts to repatriate the massive amounts of looted artifacts found scattered among the museums of Europe and the West. The conversation also explores the changing symbolic significance of the ruins in the context of a rejuvenated and economically powerful China.
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