A photograph taken by the Venetian-born photographer Felice Beato (1832 – 1909) in the fall of 1860 depicts a tiled pagoda in the western hills of Beijing. The title reveals the exigent (or unusual) circumstances of its making: View of the Summer Palace Yuen Min Yuen, Pekin, Showing the Pagoda before the Burning, October 1860. The burning refers to the drastic act of setting fire to the structure and surrounding gardens, visible in the hazy distance, by allied British and French troops during the second Opium War (1858 – 1860). The Qing court, including the Xianfeng Emperor (r. 1850 – 1861), had fled the capital as British and French armies advanced toward Beijing. The British supreme commander, Lord Elgin, ordered the famed imperial residential garden, the Yuanmingyuan, burned to the ground. This assault commenced on October 18, and thousands of troops participated over several days; imperial objects within the garden structures were removed as trophies of the defeat of the Qing state. Looted treasures brought back by French troops are still on display in Empress Eugénie’s state rooms at Fontainebleau.
The rather matter-of-fact tone of Beato’s descriptive title and the
stillness of the scene captured in the photograph belie the impact of this act of cultural violence on modern Chinese history. The Yuanming palaces and gardens functioned as the imperial residence; the Forbidden City, better known today internationally, was reserved for formal affairs of state. In addition to Yuanmingyuan’s Buddhist temples, exemplified by the pagoda in Beato’s photograph, the vast complex contained a small but significant number of eighteenth-century Jesuit-designed architectural structures, including elaborate fountains. These European-style pleasure palaces, part of a vast complex of adjacent gardens that extended across the northern section of Beijing, reflected a transcultural exchange of scientific knowledge between court cultures in Asia and Europe. The elite Qing embrace of European culture was part of a broader early Sino-modern enlightenment, and the complex’s ruinous state developed into an enduring symbol of China’s “century of humiliation” (c. 1840 – 1940) at the hands of foreign forces that regularly invaded China’s borders and plundered its monuments.