Normally harbouring a ripe distrust of one another, every once in a while the French and English can put aside all their lengthy historical squabbling to come together to be extreme jerks. There is nothing quite like bonding over a smash and grab job of cultural destruction, it breathes life into nations like the smell of napalm in the morning. And so it was in 1860 that the two nations found a common enemy in China and the Qing Dynasty’s Summer palaces and were united in a cry of: “Burn, motherf*****, burn”!
As fun as opium surely can be (we don’t condone the use, but considering the Trainspotting description and whole wars being waged, we can assume this statement to be objective) the Opium Wars were a rather rough patch in Chinese history, and in true Western fashion, it all boiled down to the West (mainly England) looking to get its greedy hands on sources of capital: trade ports, spices (because that obviously ameliorated British cuisine…), silk, and art or, more specifically, porcelain.
Westerners have always had eyes for that thin and brilliantly coloured pottery, and in the mid-19th century (some) people finally had disposable income to start buying knick knacks instead of scraping by for scraps to survive (not much has changed over time). Many bourgeois Europeans decided that making it rain for breakable pots and bowls was their way to display their wealth. The greedy aren’t too discerning in how they get what they want, which is why the Old Summer Palace is a pile of rubble, and many contemporary private and museum collections hold the resulting looted porcelain pieces.
In 1860, during the Second Opium War, the Chinese had suffered massive blows and retaliated with the kidnapping and gruesome torture of a British and French diplomatic envoy. Just prior, the Qing dynasty had been sorely defeated and the Xianfeng Emporor fled the Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan), which was immediately open to grabby hands. Like petulant kids in a candy shop, the French and British armies moved into the Beijing palace and filled their pockets with porcelain goodies to subsequently auction off back home…because money makes the world go round. Outside of valuable trinkets, they also took the absurdly, goofy Pekingese dogs!
Things went downhill, when the armies heard about the torture and murder of the envoy, and looting turned into smashing bowls…and absolutely everything else. Lord Elgin, the High Commissioner to China, ordered the palace to be burnt to the ground.
For years many porcelain pieces along with jade, bronze and others were proudly presented under captions of “Summer Palace loot”, but attempts to mask historical travesties with empty political correct manners have made the titling of these pieces more precarious. China is in the midst of attempting to buy back pieces from around the world, which shows just how much salt can be rubbed into wounds. It would seem that neither the British nor the French have any interest in returning the wares nor have either ever offered an official apology… because clinging to burnt clay is much more important than cultural sensitivity.
Paying homage to Chinese porcelains and the West’s mass production of knockoffs, artist Walter MConnell exhibits Chinamania at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian from July 9, 2016 to June 4, 2017.
By Alice Bauer