1860 sack of Yuanming Yuan


Yuanming Yuan was a complex of Qing dynasty palaces 8 km outside the contemporary boundary wall of Beijing. Work started on its construction in 1707, and by the time it was destroyed by British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War it covered an area of 3.5 km2. Yuanming Yuan was an aesthetic as much as a domestic or imperial creation, comprising hundreds of ornamental and largely wooden buildings set within an artificial landscape of gardens and waterways. It was the summer retreat and sometimes main residence of Qing emperors.
The Second Opium War, otherwise known as the Arrow War, lasted from 1856 until 1860. The immediate casus belli was the Chinese seizure on October 8, 1856 of the boat Arrow and arrest of its crew on suspicion of piracy. Britain claimed the ship to be British and in 1857 commenced military reprisals against China. It is generally believed, however, that the seizure of the Arrow was used by the British as a pretext for action aimed at rendering China more amenable to European commercial penetration and colonial partition.
In August 1860, an Anglo-French column under the joint command of Generals Hope Grant and Cousin-Montauban marched for Beijing. On October 7, it reached Yuanming Yuan. The palaces were largely undefended, and looting broke out immediately, continuing until October 9. The plunder appears to have been largely the work of French troops, though a division of what the British euphemistically referred to as “prize” took place between both armies. Many of the looted objects and materials were auctioned on the spot, with the proceeds being split between the troops. Each British private soldier received about £4. 
Sack of Yuanming Yuan
            On October 8, the British learned that a diplomatic delegation sent to Beijing had been held captive and tortured, and in retaliation their commander-in-chief Lord Elgin ordered that Yuanming Yuan should be set on fire and destroyed. Despite French objections, the fire was set on October 18, and the palaces burned for two days. The British calculated that the destruction would break the Chinese emperor’s will to resist, and they seem to have been right. China surrendered the same day and signed the disadvantageous Convention of Peking, which among other things opened more Chinese ports for international trade and legalized the opium trade.
The destruction of Yuanming Yuan continues to exert a hold on the political imagination of modern China. There is ongoing debate over whether the palace complex should be rebuilt as a celebration of Chinese art and culture, or whether the ruins should be left as a monument to colonial violence. The debate is complicated by the fact that most of the extant ruins are of stone palaces built under European influence in the mid-eighteenth century. Nothing much survives of the more traditional wooden palaces.
Kutcher, Norman. 2003. “China’s place of memory,” Wilson Quarterly 27(1), 30-40.
Wolseley, Garnet. 1862. Narrative of the War with China in 1860. London: Longman, Green, Longman & Robert.

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