China’s Ground Zero
What does the story of China’s Summer Palace reveal about the country’s attitude toward the West?
May 15, 2008
The old Summer Palace in Beijing was as large as a city. People who saw it said it was more grandiose than the pyramids, more perfect than the Parthenon and more transcendent than Notre Dame.
Even Victor Hugo, a man rarely stuck for words, struggled to capture its beauty.
Writing in 1861, he said: “Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem … gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such was this building.”
But this edifice, which took 150 years to build, went up in a whiff of imperialist smoke when British and French troops stumbled upon it in 1860. All that is left today are a few desultory fragments and some cardboard scale models which signally fail to conjure up the palace’s former glory.
These dilapidated remains have been carefully preserved by successive Chinese governments.
Like the scar of Ground Zero in New York City, they play a defining role in the Chinese psyche — arguably as great as any building that is still standing.
The memory of the Summer Palace, “Yuanmingyuan” as it is known in Chinese, acts as an open wound that can be salted whenever citizens need to be mobilized, or reminded of how the Communist Party saved China from foreign defeat.
Yuanmingyuan is a physical embodiment of the “century of humiliation” which ran from China’s defeat in the Opium Wars of 1840, through the loss of Taiwan, the various Japanese invasions and the civil war right until the Communist Revolution of 1949.
For some intellectuals, the remains of Yuanmingyuan also tell another story about modern China. This story is not about the damage which colonial powers have done to China, but of the destruction which the Chinese have inflicted upon themselves by importing — and misapplying — foreign ideas.
In July 2006, Zhang Guangtian, an avant-garde theatre director, staged a controversial play, called Yuanmingyuan, that dramatized the relentless quest to modernize China by importing ideas from abroad, a history that has seen the country leap from one totalizing philosophy to another.
Zhang Guangtian’s play challenged his compatriots with a heretical question: Who really destroyed Yuanmingyuan? Taking the spotlight off the imperial powers, he showed how the Chinese people themselves have been complicit in the despoiling of this national icon, which he treats as a metaphor for their dreams and ideals.
The story begins in 1860 with a group of peasants who lounge around, complaining bitterly about the Chinese emperor’s neglect of ordinary people. When a British soldier arrives on the stage, the peasants encourage him to attack the imperial palace so that they themselves can loot its remains.
The same three actors then metamorphose into idealistic students — part of the May 4 “Science and Democracy” Movement of 1919 — who desecrate the “feudal” ruins to show their commitment to Western modernity.
In the next scene, the same actors return as Red Guards from the Cultural Revolution, turning the ruins into a rice paddy to show off their revolutionary fervor.
The guards, in turn, become bureaucrats from the 1980s who line their pockets by converting the holy site into an amusement park.
The action then shifts to 2005 when the same actors play local officials who line the lakes of Yuanmingyuan with plastic sheets in a bid to save water. They caused such outrage that they provoke the country’s first ever public environmental hearing.
The second part of Zhang Guangtian’s play is an unflinching exposé of the problems caused by China’s recent embrace of the market — environmental pollution, official corruption, the growing gap between rich and poor and the appalling conditions of China’s mines.
The play confronts the audience with the need to take responsibility for China’s problems rather than assigning blame on foreign invaders.
The playwright’s message is subtle — it is not a plea to shut China off from the world, but a call to his fellow citizens to forge their own path into the future, rather than blindly embrace Western goods and ideas.
His play gives dramatic form to the question that is mobilizing his native country: What does China need to do to take control of its own destiny?
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “What Does China Think” by Mark Leonard. Copyright 2008 Mark Leonard. Reprinted with permission from the publisher and author.
The story of the Summer Palace is not a plea to shut China off from the world, but a call to the Chinese to forge their own path into the future.
People who saw Yuanmingyuan said it was more grandiose than the pyramids, more perfect than the Parthenon and more transcendent than Notre Dame.
The story of Yuanmingyuan is about the destruction which the Chinese have inflicted upon themselves by importing — and misapplying — foreign ideas.
Zhang Guangtian's play is an unflinching exposé of the problems caused by China's recent embrace of the market.
Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform, London Mark Leonard is Director of Foreign Policy at the London-based Centre for European Reform where he writes on Europe’s relations with the United States, the Middle East and China. He also writes regular features for the Financial Times Magazine. Mr. Leonard acts an adviser […]