October 18: The Acorn and the Oak

2016/10/18 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1860 the British High Commissioner to China Lord Elgin ordered the destruction of the “Old” Summer Palace in Beijing.

Begun in 1707, the Palace was actually a sprawling composition of palatial structures set within spectacular planned gardens.  With a series of “named vistas” and extensive waterworks that would have made Hadrian envious, the Palace was a kind of imperial villa for the Qing Dynasty whose HQ was about five miles away in the Forbidden City.

The extensive vandalism done to the palace was payback for the torture and murder of British and Indian representatives to the Royal Prince during the Second Opium War.  British and French troops attacked the Palace, first ransacking it then lighting a fire that burned for three days.  The work was done with such haste that later soldiers regretted not having time to properly loot the place before setting it and its treasures ablaze.

The remains of the Palace have been somewhat picturesquely arranged for the enjoyment of contemporary visitors to the site, which is a reminder that the demolition of architecture is oftentimes just as powerful a signal of cultural values as its initial construction.

If you are wondering about the family name: yes, this James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine was the son of Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, responsible for other architectural vandalism some years earlier.

Image: some of the ruins (Clio’s)

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