søndag 14. februar 2021

Debates over Beijing's derelict Old Summer Palace are about more than history

Northeast of Beijing's resplendent Summer Palace lie the ruins of another stately structure, burned to the ground by European forces during the Second Opium War. Once an elaborate network of pavilions, palaces, bridges and gardens, Yuanmingyuan -- "The Garden of Perfect Brightness," known simply as the Old Summer Palace in English -- is now little more than collections of rubble amid a network of tranquil lakes. 

In 1860, Britain's High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, ordered troops to destroy both the Summer Palace and Old Summer Palace to avenge the killing of several British envoys to Beijing. By striking sites of cultural and imperial significance, Elgin wanted to chasten China.

But with the Old Summer Palace still in ruins, he instead created a shrine that, more than a century on, is used by the country's leadership to remind its people of past foreign aggression. Each year, tens of thousands of visitors arrive to see its broken pillars and stone bricks, which dot an unkempt landscape of grass and weeds. They are potent symbols of China's "century of humiliation," the term Beijing uses to describe the period from the start of the Opium War in 1839 to the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.