The looting of the Summer Palace: a colonial humiliation in China

BEIJING — The looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing is one of the most infamous episodes of colonial abuse in China -- a humiliation that remains vivid nearly 150 years on.

The auctioning in Paris of two imperial bronze relics that were part of the booty seized by the British in 1860 has opened this wound and become a rallying cry for nationalists.

"The looting of the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan) by the French and the English, and the fire started by the British, remains an unforgivable crime in Chinese memory," Bernard Brizay, author of a book on the subject, told AFP.

"For the French, it would be the same as if the Prussians in 1870 had razed Versailles down to the ground, looted the Louvre (museum) and set fire to the national library, as the Yuanmingyuan was all of those at once," he said.

In October 1860, towards the end of the Second Opium War -- which pitted the British and the French against China for four years from 1856 -- foreign troops reached Beijing.

Soldiers first looted what the Chinese now call the Old Summer Palace, and then came back to set fire to the place in retaliation for the death and torture of French and British hostages.

The Western-style palace had been built northwest of the Chinese capital at the heyday of the Qing dynasty, and emperors had made it a habit to go there to escape the Forbidden City and stifling heat during the summer.

The looting and burning of the palace was a shock not only for the Chinese but also for foreigners such as the French writer Victor Hugo, who denounced the destruction of this "splendid and sensational museum of the East".

"In the eyes of history, one of the two outlaws will be called France, the other will be called England," he wrote.

"I hope there will come a day when France, liberated and cleaned up, will send back this booty to a plundered China."

Today, Chinese lawyers are playing the nationalist card as they drum up local support for a legal campaign in France to stop the relics being sold at the Christie's auction.

"The looting of the Summer Palace is a wound that has never really healed. Selling these objects that were stolen from us is like pouring salt on the wound," said Beijing attorney Liu Yang, who is leading the group's efforts.

Brizay also said government propaganda was keeping alive the "painful memory".

Indeed, the Chinese government has spoken out forcefully on the issue.

"Auctioning cultural objects looted in war time not only offends the Chinese people and undermines their cultural rights, but also violates relevant international conventions," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said.


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