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Charles Morris

The Burning of the Summer Palace

The "sublime" emperor, the supreme head of the great realm of China and its hundreds of millions of people, dwells in a magnificence and seclusion unknown to the monarchs of other lands. His palace enclosure within the city of Peking, the "Purple Forbidden City," as it is called, covers over half a square mile of ground, and is surrounded by a wall forty feet high and more than forty feet thick. Within this sacred enclosure the Chinese ideas of beauty and magnificence have been developed to the fullest extent, and the emperor resides in unapproachable grandeur and state. Outside the city, a few miles to the north, lies the Summer Palace, another locality on which the Celestial architects and landscape artists have exhausted their genius in devising scenes of beauty and charm, and which is similarly walled in from the common herd. Beyond the Great Wall, on the borders of Tartary, exists another palatial enclosure, the hunting and pleasure grounds of the emperor, in the midst of an immense forest abundantly stocked with game. To the latter his supreme majesty made his way with all haste on hearing of the rapid approach of the English and French armies. In truth, the great monarchs of the Manchu dynasty had passed away, and the feeble reigning emperor lacked the courage to fight for his throne.

On the 5th of October, 1860, the allied armies of England and France approached the Celestial capital, the officers obtaining their first view of its far-stretching wall from the tops of some grass-grown brick-kilns. On the next day the march was resumed, the French force advancing upon the Summer Palace, where it was hoped the emperor would be found, the English directing their course towards the city, where a Tartar picket was driven in and preparations were begun for an assault in force.

The Summer Palace was found in charge of some three hundred eunuchs, whom Prince Kung, who had left in all haste the evening before, had ordered to make a gallant defence. But the entrance gave way before the impetuous assault of the French, a few of the defenders fell dead or wounded, and the remainder beat a hasty retreat, leaving the grand entrance to the Yuen-ming-yuen, the famous imperial residence, in the hands of the daring and disrespectful "barbarians."

Into the grand reception-hall, which none had heretofore entered except in trembling awe, the irreverent foreigners boldly made their way, their spurred heels ringing on the broad marble floor before the emperor's sacred throne, their loud voices resounding through that spacious hall where silence and ceremony so long had reigned supreme, as the awed courtiers approached with silent tread and voiceless respect the throne of the dreaded Brother of the Sun and Moon.

"Imagine such a scene," says Swinhoe. "The emperor is seated on his ebony throne, attired in a yellow robe wrought over with dragons in gold thread, his head surmounted with a spherical crown of gold and precious stones, with pearl drops suspended round on light gold chains. His eunuchs and ministers, in court costume, are ranged on either side on their knees, and his guard of honor and musicians drawn up in two lines in the court-yard without. The name of the distinguished person to be introduced is called out, and as he approaches the band strikes up. He draws near the awful throne, and, looking meekly on the ground, drops on his knees before the central steps. He removes his hat from his head, and places it on the throne floor with its peacock feather towards the imperial donor. The emperor moves his hand, and down goes the humble head, and the forehead strikes on the step three times three. The head is then raised, but the eyes are still meekly lowered, as the imperial voice in thrilling accents pronounces the behest of the great master. The voice hushed, down goes the head again and acknowledges the sovereign right, and the privileged individual is allowed to withdraw. The scene described is not imaginary, but warranted by the accounts of natives.

"How different the scene now! The hall filled with crowds of a foreign soldiery, and the throne floor covered with the Celestial emperor's choicest curios, but destined as gifts for two far more worthy monarchs. 'See here,' said General Montauban, pointing to them. 'I have had a few of the most brilliant things selected to be divided between the Queen of Great Britain and the Emperor of the French!'"

General Montauban had declared that no looting should take place until the British came up, that all might have their equal share, but the fierce desire of the French soldiers for spoil could not easily be restrained. Even the officers were no better, and as the rooms of the palace were boldly explored, "gold watches and small valuables were whipped up by these gentlemen with amazing velocity, and as speedily disappeared into their capacious pockets." Into the very bedroom of the emperor the unawed visitors made their way, and gazed with curious eyes on the imperial couch, curtained over and covered with silk mattresses. Under the pillow was a small silk handkerchief, with sundry writings in the vermilion pencil concerning the "barbarians," while on a table lay pipes and other articles of daily use. On another table was found the English treaty of 1858, whose terms were soon to be largely modified.


Street scene, Pekin, China.

Meanwhile the nimble-fingered French soldiers had not been idle, and the camp was full of articles of value or interest, silks and curios, many of them rare prizes, watches, pencil-cases set with diamonds, jewelled vases, and a host of other costly trifles, chief among which was a string of splendid pearls exhibited by one officer, each pearl of the size of a marble and the whole of immense value.

On Sunday morning, the 7th of October, the orders against looting were withdrawn, and officers and men, English and French alike, rushed excitedly about the place, appropriating every valuable which it was within their power to carry. What could not be carried away was destroyed, a spirit of wanton destruction seeming to animate them all. Some amused themselves by shooting at the chandeliers, others by playing pitch-and-toss against large and costly mirrors, while some armed themselves with clubs and smashed to pieces everything too heavy to be carried, finishing the work by setting on fire the emperor's private residence.

Those who paid more heed to observation than to destruction have given us interesting accounts of the Summer Palace and its surroundings, whose vast enclosure extended from the place where the French entered to the foot of the first range of hills north of Peking, six or seven miles away. Over this broad extent were scattered gardens, palaces, temples, and pagodas on terraces and artificial hills. Some of these were like the one seen by Marco Polo in the palace enclosure of Kublai Khan, being from three hundred to four hundred feet in height, their sides covered with forest-trees of all kinds, through whose foliage the yellow-tiled palace roofs appeared. In the midst of these hills lay a large lake, containing two or three islands, on which were picturesque buildings, the islands being reached by quaint and beautiful stone bridges.

On one side of the lake ran the favorite walk of the emperor and his court, winding in and out for more than two miles among grottos and flower-gardens, roofed in by flowering creepers. Where palaces touched the water's edge the walk was carried past on light but beautiful stone terraces built over the lake. Grandeur was added to the general beauty of the scene by the high mountains of Tartary which rose in the rear.

The work of looting was followed by a sale of the spoil under the walls of Peking, the auction continuing for three days, during which a large quantity of valuable plunder was disposed of. Many of the French officers had acquired considerable fortunes, and numbers of their men were nearly as well supplied. For several days intoxication and disorder prevailed, while the disposition to plunder was extended from the palace to the neighboring villages.

Meanwhile the preparations for an assault on Peking had gone forward. The Anting gate was the point selected, the Chinese being given until the 12th for a peaceful surrender. As noon of that day drew near, the gunners stood by their pieces, a storming party excitedly awaited the order to charge as soon as a breach had been made, and General Napier, watch in hand, timed the slow minutes. Five minutes to twelve arrived. The general was almost on the point of giving the order, the gunners were growing eager and excited, when Colonel Stephenson came galloping hastily up with the news that the gate had been surrendered. In a few minutes more it was thrown open, a party of British marched in and took possession, and the French followed with beating drums and flying flags, forcing the natives back as they advanced.

That afternoon several prisoners were restored to the allies. They proved to have been inhumanly treated and were in a condition of fearful emaciation, while the bodies of several who had died were also given up, among them that of Mr. Bowlby, correspondent of the London Times. This spectacle aroused the greatest indignation in the British camp. A terrible retribution might have been inflicted upon Peking had not a promise of its safety been given if the gate were surrendered. But the emperor's rural retreat lay at the mercy of the troops, and Lord Elgin gave orders that its palaces should be levelled with the ground. The French refused to aid in this act of vandalism, which they strongly condemned,—a verdict which has since been that of the civilized world. But Lord Elgin was fixed in his purpose, and the work of destruction went on.

Soon flames appeared above the devoted structures, and long columns of smoke rose to the sky, increasing in width and density as the day waned, until the canopy of smoke hung like a vast storm-cloud over Peking, and the sorrowful eyes of those on the walls saw the flashing fire that told of the swift destruction of what it had taken centuries to build For two days the work of ruin in the imperial grounds went on, the soldiers carrying away what they could from the burning buildings, though a vast amount of property was destroyed, the loss being estimated at a value of over ton million dollars.

Threats were now made that unless compensation should be paid for the British subjects maltreated and murdered, and the treaty signed within a fixed period, the palace in Peking would be seized and other steps of violence taken. There was no redress for the Chinese. They were in the grasp of their foes and were obliged to submit. On the 24th, Lord Elgin was carried in state in his green sedan-chair through the principal street of the city, attended by a force of about eight thousand soldiers, while multitudes of Chinese viewed the procession with curious eyes. Prince Kung awaited him in a large hall, and here the Treaty of Tien-tsin, to obtain a ratification of which the allies had come to Peking, was formally executed. At the close of the ceremonies the prince tendered a banquet, but the British declined the proffered honor, fearing that they might be poisoned by the Chinese cooks. A similar banquet offered to the French on the following day was readily accepted, and none of them suffered through their faith in the honor of their host.

Since the date of this war the process of opening China to the nations of the West has gone unceasingly on, the policy of exclusion of that old nation slowly but steadily giving way. In 1873, on the young emperor Tung-chi attaining his majority, the long-refused audience with the emperor without performing the kotow  was granted, the ambassador of Japan being first received, and after him those of the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands. For the first time foreigners were permitted to stand erect and gaze with uplifted eyes on "the sacred countenance," and the equality with the emperor of the monarchs of the West was acknowledged by the Celestial court.