After an exhausting day of climbing the Great Wall of China and wandering around the Ming Tombs, our Chinese tour guide ended the day at Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens on the outskirts of Beijing. Luckily, we were given rides in electric cars to a gate where we wandered through the Western Mansions section of what was called the Old Summer Palace, where only Qing Emperors and their royal courts could live and conduct affairs of state (the Forbidden City was used for more formal affairs).
At first I wondered why I had to explore the ruins of stone fountains and great halls by twilight when I just wanted to fall into bed, but as I walked across broken marble and listened to the tour guide tell its story, I began to understand the significance of Yuan Ming Yuan to the Chinese people. Yuan Ming Yuan means “The Gardens of Perfect Brightness,” and in its day, it must have reflected the most glorious mix of old-style Chinese temples, pagodas, and galleries with Tibetan and Mongol architecture. In one corner, European-inspired mansions rose above dancing waterfalls, rivers, bridges, and forested hills. Thousands of priceless artifacts such as ancient Chinese vases, gold figurines, carved jade, and intricate paintings once filled the now-ruined complex.
My Chinese guide told me that even America was involved in the destruction of what was left of Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens during the Eight-Nation Alliance invasion after the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (when Chinese peasants killed many Christians and foreigners, and the West retaliated). I felt a sense of guilt and sorrow as I watched uniformed westerners dash priceless ceramics to pieces, put jeweled necklaces in their pockets, and torch palaces laden with ancient manuscripts. Later, I read an account of a British soldier who was there in 1860:
We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money…I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.
I’ve lived and studied in England, and now I understand why some old English manors boast a collection of Ming vases. I wish they would return these treasures to their original owners to alleviate bad feelings between East and West. As a guest in China, given the respect and official license of a “Foreign Expert,” I apologized to my Chinese tour group and added, “Those soldiers in 1860 were definitely not Americans. We don’t have those kinds of uniforms.” I vowed to search into the history of our part in the 1910 burning of the gardens, for I was never taught in a U.S. history class that America invaded China.
The Chinese have not rebuilt Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens. They leave the ruined stone columns and empty fountains as a memory that can touch the hearts of Chinese and Western visitors.
See more photos of Yuan Ming Yuan Gardens on Digital Journal.