Thursday, March 05, 2009

A Question of Context

By Chip Tsao | published Mar 05, 2009

China has fallen out with the French over the auction of a rabbit’s head and a rat’s head in Paris—a diplomatic spat that has done the Chinese heads in and left the French scratching their heads. The two controversial bronze heads were allegedly looted from the Summer Palace in Peking by the joint Anglo-French army in 1860.

The “burning of the Summer Palace” (in Chinese, “huo shao Yuanming Yuan”) has become synonymous with nationalistic humiliation, and anything that invokes it would deeply hurt the feelings, as the jargon has it, of the Chinese people. But why was the Summer Palace burned in the first place? Chinese history textbooks tell only half the story.

In June 1858, Hsian Fung, the Chinese emperor, had surrounded himself with a gaggle of hawkish ministers while the British and the French were knocking on the door, demanding more trade. The diplomatic row soon escalated into a military crisis, as a large flotilla of Anglo-French forces sailed northwards from Hong Kong, threatening a full-scale invasion. Hsian Fung responded by fleeing to his Royal Garden Villa in Manchuria, and ordered his ministers to open urgent talks with the white devils.

The British sent an envoy named Harry Parkes, who was arrested with his entourage in Tientsin. Parkes was made to kowtow to the Chinese officials, who forcefully beat his head on the ground a few hundred times, apparently in retaliation for the refusal of the previous envoy, Lord McCartney, to pay necessary deference when he arrived at the court of the late emperor Ch’ien Lung. Then as the British navy approached off of Bohai Bay, Parkes and his followers were tied up with waterlogged leather straps and removed to Peking.

The British prisoners, still tied up in belts, were locked in a small cell in the Summer Palace. Parkes then supposedly sang “God Save the Queen” to the grinning prison guards, who had no idea what it meant. Not long after, the prisoners fell ill and their bodies were infested with maggots. A reporter for the Times was the first to die and his body was fed to the dogs. Some other prisoners were mutilated. When the group was eventually released, only 19 out of the 39 captured survived.

The tragedy sent shockwaves back to Europe, and both the British and French peoples’ feelings were deeply hurt. The French suggested burning down the Forbidden City as revenge. But a more lenient Lord James Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, proposed that the Summer Palace, where the crime was committed, should be destroyed instead. Should we blame the British and the French?

Not quite, according to the logic of someone such as John Pilger, a left-wing Australian journalist who blamed Pol Pot’s massacre of 2 million Cambodians on President Nixon for originally bombing Cambodia and thus triggering the Khmer Rouge terror.

When you read history, context is paramount. Whether you’re arguing about a rabbit’s head or a rat’s head, it’s always hard to keep your own head cool when you have it up your ass.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home