Monday, December 17, 2018

A Painting and Late Qing History

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.


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Qing Empresses Exhibition Named Best Show

Trying to pique Westerners' interest in Chinese history through historical fiction is hard, as the genre is just way too Eurocentric. It's a good thing that this exhibition of Qing Empresses has caught some eyeballs. I hope this will help spread the word about early Qing history, and about Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang as a key (but probably forgotten) female leader, whose influence was inexorably tied to the successful rise of the Qing Dynasty.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: 近代中國史綱(上) (A Short History of Modern China, Vol. 1)

I've finished Volume One (of two Volumes) of A Short History of Modern China by Kuo Ting-yee (it's written in Chinese and published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong 近代中國史綱(上)). This volume covers the time period from the 1830s up to the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, and it coincides with the period covered in Stephen R. Platt's new book Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age. Volume Two covers the timeframe between 1912 and 1949, which I will read at a later date. I thought it sensible to read a history book about Modern China written by an ethnic Chinese historian.

It was a difficult (painful) read for me (probably the same for any ethnic Chinese) because it was a blatant case of Western countries (Britain, France, Germany & to a lesser extent, the U.S.) plus Japan and Russia scheming to bully and split up China in the name of fostering trade. Of course a feckless, self-serving and rotten Qing court (with Empress Cixi and Yuan Shikai as the main culprits) not only didn't help matters but actually emboldened foreign countries’ covetous ambitions. Honestly speaking, the causes leading to the debacle of the Qing Dynasty were not spectacularly different from those that helped to wipe out Ming, or Yuan, or Song, or Tang or Han. It was always a matter of internal rot, corruption and internecine fights at the ruling classes’ level and their gross neglect of subjects’ grievances that initiated the process of rapid decay at the core. Unfortunately, it is also true that the lessons of history have never been well learned even with endless repetitions.

Having said that, I am of the view that neither should those foreign aggressors be let off the hook for their nefarious behavior and shameful actions that caused unspeakable sufferings to the common people of China. History and international relations are a complex chain of causes and effects. Learning and understanding world history is the first step towards understanding our present human condition.