The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has recently blogged about how an amazing gem of a Chinese painting came to land on the museum’s doorsteps. It is a moving story, and the serendipitous find in question is a lovely painting of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頣和園. In the 1880s Empress Cixi ordered this imperial garden restored, which was located near the site of the Old Summer Palace 圓明園.
One paragraph in the middle of the blog post reads:
“At the time, Wang was in the very early stages of planning for the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibition. The donated painting, now on view in the last gallery, helps tell the story of the influence wielded by Empress Dowager Cixi within the Qing dynasty. In the 1880s Cixi personally oversaw the restoration of the property, which had been pillaged by Anglo-French troops some 20 years earlier.”
But the unvarnished official history behind these imperial gardens is far less palatable than that indicated in the above paragraph. Around 1860, the Old Summer Palace 圓明園 had been vindictively burned to the ground by Anglo-French troops under orders of British Commander Lord Elgin, in what came to be known as the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860). All this violence was in retaliation for the Chinese people trying to resist opium trade and the British invasion of Guangdong in the 1850s.
Willfully oblivious to her subjects' long sufferings during the two Opium Wars and foreign countries' relentless military offensives on Chinese soil, and the crippling penalties they imposed, Cixi took the funds earmarked for the modernizing of the Qing naval fleet and lavished it on the restoration of the Garden of Nurtured Harmony 頤和園 for her own private pleasure.
Perhaps this infamous act paled in comparison to her later wicked persecution of patriotic reformists in 1898, it was nonetheless a direct cause of the Qing court’s defeat in various naval battles with France and Japan between 1884 and 1894, which effectively turned China into a sitting duck vis a vis foreign aggressors and set the stage for the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and the invasion of Beijing by the Alliance of Eight Nations (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, U.S., Italy and Austria), and then the 1911 Revolution.
It makes me think that world history is a super complex chain of causes and effects. Without going deep into our history, we would never be able to understand the conflicts that plague international relations, much less our present human condition.