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Members' Research Report Archive

Before the Fall of Chinoiserie

Sarah Elizabeth Fraser, Heidelberg University
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellow, 2016 – 2017

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Felice Beato, View of the Summer Palace Yuen Min Yuen, Pekin, Showing the Pagoda before the Burning, October 1860, 1860. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson

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.

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Felice Beato, The Great Imperial Porcelain Palace Yuen Min Yuen, Pekin, October 18, 1860, 1860. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Michael and Jane Wilson

As part of this process, European, American, and Japanese photographers created a deep photographic record of their presence, celebrating the exotic qualities of the material culture and architecture they encountered, such as the “Great Imperial Porcelain Palace,” located in a nearby complex that was also looted. The National Gallery of Art holds more than fifty photos of East Asian subjects by Beato, most of them taken during the second Opium War campaign.

The caption accompanying the photograph of the pagoda serves as an index to the events in October 1860. The scene’s static quality, however, seems to provide little information to the viewer about contemporary circumstances. Rather, the composition’s subject matter anticipates the state of affairs in the future and looks forward to a rupture with the past. And yet photography makes the structure’s history accessible by recalling the long continuum of pagoda motifs in European printed books and engravings as far back as Jean Nieuhoff’s The Embassy of the Dutch East India Company to the Emperor of China, or the Great Cham of Tartary, first published in Leiden in 1665. As a central motif used to reference Chinese identity, the tall, attenuated Buddhist stupa was a compositional device intended to signify distant East Asian lands. Pagodas were awe-inspiring subjects. Thus, the act of destroying a large, ornate structure that occupied the heart of chinoiserie representations signaled the end of an era dominated by the appreciation of objects of desire and wonder and the beginning of a new period marked by aggressive consumption, domination, and destruction. In other words, European (and later American) visitors were no longer content to behold and admire chinoiserie. They actively consumed it and captured that consumption on camera.