Tuesday, May 7, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 18: The Second Opium War and Burning of the Summer Palace

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs continues his series on Chinese history during the Qing dynasty and Great Britain’s razing of an imperial palace that still burns up (forgive the pun) many Chinese even today.

British and French troops loot and burn the Summer Palace

In the last column we discussed the events leading to China’s First Opium War with Britain (1839-1842).

The Qing Dynasty, hopelessly outmatched by modern British naval forces, capitulated at the Treaty of Nanjing where it ceded what London had sought for half a century: five new trading ports and less Chinese import protectionism. Britain was also granted the island of Hong Kong, monetary war reparations, the right to build Christian churches in treaty ports, and legal extraterritoriality for British subjects.

Upon hearing the news France and the United States rushed to negotiate their own separate treaties which established the so-called American and French “concessions” in treaty ports like Shanghai. Yet despite its defeat and weak position the Qing continued to resist additional contact or imports from foreigners by any means possible.

Compounding the Qing’s obstinance was a basic misunderstanding of western motives: Qing officials simply couldn’t believe that the 'big-nosed barbarians' only wanted free trade. Surely the British meant to conquer all of China and rule it themselves since, after all, that’s precisely what the Qing had done when their Manchurian ancestors swept into Beijing and conquered the Forbidden City in 1644.

Journalist Edward Behr encapsulates this misunderstanding, writing…

“The Manchu court firmly believed—in 1860—that the ‘big-nosed hairy ones’ intended to sit on the throne themselves. Only gradually did the imperial advisers realize that the British and French ‘barbarians’ merely sought trade—and a permanent diplomatic presence in Peking. Had they understood this earlier, thousands of lives… might have been saved.”


The Qing dynasty had been exposed as a paper tiger by the First Opium War, spurring western powers to take a more aggressive approach towards China for even more favorable terms of trade.

Worsening the Qing’s position was a continued decline within its leadership. The Daoguang emperor, well meaning but generally ineffective, died in 1850 leaving the throne to his son the Xianfeng emperor, arguably the worst of any Qing emperor who ever held power. Xianfeng was only halfway concerned with governing his unsteady empire and drank himself to an early death in 1861.

In 1856 an incident broke involving Qing seizure of a Chinese merchant ship (the Arrow) which Britain claimed was sailing under its flag. Qing officials reportedly pulled down and trampled the Union Jack, providing a pretext for London to launch a second Opium War (1856-1860).

The Second Opium War was a smaller affair with fewer casualties than the first, and it quieted down in 1858 after a string of British victories motivated peace negotiations. As Britain gained additional trading ports and possession of Kowloon (across the harbor from Hong Kong) other ambitious powers joined in the talks. 

Most notably Russia, smelling blood and seeking Manchurian territory that the Kangxi emperor had denied it in 1689, won over 1 million square kilometers of outer Manchuria (see map) including nearly 1,000 miles of Pacific coastline from which Russia settled the strategic port city of Vladivostok. Russia also gained a large piece of northwest China which today is eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian territorial gains in Manchuria


The Xianfeng emperor, maintaining Chinese culture was still superior to all others, considered the treaty terms unacceptable, particularly the British legations. Regarding a permanent barbarian diplomatic presence in the capital as insulting, he refused to sign and the hostilities resumed.

Seeking to pressure the emperor into accepting the treaty terms, a British expeditionary force was sent to Beijing in 1860. Its leader, Lord Elgin, had several warships plus 10,000 British and 7,000 French soldiers at his disposal but his mission was to achieve a peaceful settlement without use of force if at all possible.

Upon reaching the mouth of the Hai River allied troops landed and began trekking up the river banks to Beijing. Having traversed only a few miles, they were received by two Qing commissioners sent by the Xianfeng emperor for talks.

The plan proposed by the Qing was as follows: the chief British negotiator, Harry Parkes, would travel ahead to Beijing along with a few journalists, a newspaper illustrator, and a handful of diplomatic personnel and Sikh guards. Meanwhile Lord Elgin’s larger, slower force would follow behind. By the time Elgin arrived in Beijing negotiations would be completed where he would attend the formal signing ceremony with the emperor.

The British agreed and their small party of negotiators, diplomats, journalists, etc… went ahead. Meanwhile Elgin’s force was thinning as he had to leave troops stationed behind to maintain supply lines back to his ships.

Once Elgin’s force had whittled down to 10,000 men they found themselves surprise ambushed on both sides by superior numbers of elite Manchu cavalry. It turns out the “negotiation settlement” had been a ruse from which the Qing plotted to destroy the British force. Elgin’s 10,000 British and French troops were charged by 50,000 Qing cavalry and infantry.

Fortunately for the allied expedition they brought along a few Armstrong cannons, a revolutionary lightweight artillery design not yet tested in battle. The Manchu charge offered ideal conditions for the cannon’s debut and it wiped out the superior Qing force with devastating accuracy and power. When the smoke cleared the Qing army was broken while the allies had suffered just five dead.

A British lieutenant reported news to his commander that “The Armstrong gun is a great success.”

Now clued in that Qing overtures of peace had been a deception, Elgin’s forces made haste to Beijing. Upon entering the city they found that Beijing’s elites and the emperor had fled, leaving his stepbrother Prince Gong with the unenviable job of making peace with the westerners.

The allies were also horrified to discover their diplomatic party had been tortured with fifteen of the twenty-six dying either in captivity or by execution including Times reporter Thomas Bowlby whose body had been thrown over a wall to be eaten by dogs and pigs. The bodies of other victims had been mutilated.

Lead negotiator Parkes had been spared, only having suffered severe beatings while others had been, according to Elgin’s secretary Henry Loch, “tied up by their wrists in cords so tight their hands turned black and swelled until, in some cases, they burst.” 

Upon hearing of the torture and deaths of their comrades, who had entered the Forbidden City under flag of truce, allied troops were enraged. Some commanders sought to exact retribution upon the entire capital city, urging Elgin to first loot and then burn down all of Beijing and hang every remaining Chinese resident.

Elgin insisted anger should not sway the allies’ decision and called for a calm, sober meeting to consider more suitable punishments. In the end he convinced British commanders that the average Chinese citizen should not bear the cost of the Qing court’s treachery which should instead fall upon the emperor himself. A decision was reached to raze the emperor’s second residence just a few miles northwest of Beijing: the Old Summer Palace.

Hence allied troops entered the largely abandoned palace of regal and ornate buildings and looted priceless art treasures, destroying those too heavy to carry back, before burning the 800-acre complex to the ground. A young Captain Charles Gordon, ironically later commander and hero of Qing forces fighting domestic Chinese rebels, recorded that:

”You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.”

Unbeknownst to the British and French, 300 palace eunuchs had hidden themselves within locked rooms and died in the fire.


It’s important to note that the Second Opium War was somewhat of a sideshow for the Qing dynasty, at least until British and French troops entered Beijing. For China was preoccupied with several domestic rebellions at the same time: the Nian, second Miao, Panthay, Red Turban, and Taiping Rebellions while simultaneously fighting the British and the French.

The Taiping Rebellion dwarfed all the other conflicts combined and killed 20-30 million Chinese making the Second Opium War, which cost perhaps 8,000 Qing lives at the most, a pinprick by comparison.

After the Summer Palace was burned down the Qing court was eager to make peace with the foreigners and get on with focusing on more existential conflicts within their own borders. They also went on to build the New Summer Palace only two miles further out from the ruins of the Old Summer Palace.

Today the Chinese government has designated the Old Summer Palace ruins a major historical and cultural site which is visited by over a million people, mostly Chinese, every year. The Communist Party has also poured a great deal of money into restoring not the palace itself, but the ruins.

If this sounds like a strange decision, it’s not.

The idea is to make the ruins as accessible and presentable as possible, with plenty of displays and plaques contrasting the beauty of the pre-1860 grounds to the meticulously well-preserved rubble that tourists see today. The Old Summer Palace therefore serves a very useful propaganda purpose, fanning further the flames of Chinese resentment towards foreigners, particularly British but also American—even though no Americans participated in the burning of the palace.

The Economics Correspondent has visited the Forbidden City and Great Wall as a tourist, but not the Old Summer Palace. However he’s willing to wager the full details surrounding the decision to burn the Summer Palace—namely the Qing’s ruse of peace talks, its torture and execution of diplomats and journalists, the surprise attack on allied forces who believed they were marching to a peace ceremony, and Lord Elgin’s restraint of British commanders who wished to raze all of Beijing—are not discussed in detail within the site's exhibits.

While British society has largely come to terms with past misdeeds in Qing China, the Chinese Communist Party makes no such concessions. Maintaining a reservoir of popular acrimony towards the West comes in useful when China, now stronger and more assertive, rouses more confrontation and standoffs with the outside world. In fact, Xi Jinping has preemptively cranked up references to the Opium Wars and "Century of Humiliation" in his public statements.

Chinese tourists: Animosity is strongly encouraged

Ultimately the Old Summer Palace story is still a tragic one and it’s not difficult to find fault with both China and Britain, the latter having started the war on a flimsy pretext. As Edward Behr again summarizes:

“It is difficult to say, in the almost constant series of conflicts that marked relations between China and the outside world… … which side behaved worse.”

Postscript: According to Chinese state-run CGTN:

"The National Cultural Heritage Administration said... ...rebuilding the Old Summer Palace is unnecessary and will change the status quo of the palace. And as a pile of ruins, the relic can serve as a warning to Chinese people and remind them that they should never forget the national humiliation. After the reply, netizens began to express their excitement or frustration, with some supporting reconstruction and others strongly disapproving it..."

"[Also state run media] China Central Television, Xinhua News, Guangming Daily as well as Red Star News all voiced opposition against the reconstruction, commenting on their websites that it's time for the debate to stop forever."

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