May 04, 2012 03:55 PM

The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan


On a balmy, moonlit evening in the autumn of 2010, I took my son out to Yuanmingyuan to wander among the ruins. The 150th anniversary of the destruction of "The Garden of Perfect Brightness" – often called the Old Summer Palace  - was approaching and I wanted him to see what remained.

We savored the wind in the willows, bought spun sugar in animal shapes from a vendor near the entrance, gaped at the gargantuan lily pads that carpeted the lakes, and gawked at a black swan floating in their midst. When we heard music, we followed it to an outdoor stage where "The Legend of Yuanmingyuan" was being performed. Billed as "patriotic education" for children, it consisted of shadow puppeteers and costumed dwarfs reenacting the looting and burning of the palace complex in 1860. Foreigners – played by dwarfs in curly yellow wool wigs – were portrayed as so stupid they couldn't speak their own languages. Chinese villagers were uniformly brave, defending the Emperor unto death and shouting, "Kill the Foreign Devils! Kill the Foreign Devils!" The dwarfs were not professional actors, but were evidently there to lure an audience that might prefer a freak show to a history book, and the whole event struck me as sordid, sad – and, yet, somehow, unsurprising.

Because, a century and a half after its wanton destruction, Yuanmingyuan remains a festering wound in the history of modern China. It was covered over with scar tissue for much of the twentieth century but reopened in the 1980s as the divisiveness of class struggle was rejected in favor of a new sense of unified nationalism. But, even as it has become an icon of patriotic education and a symbol of China's "humiliation" at the hands of foreign imperialists, it remains a topic of unending controversy.

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