China: Relics of the Old Summer Palace

Back in the news again is Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, whose destruction still remains a sensitive topic in China.

Built during the Qing Dynasty, it was later sacked by British and French troops in 1860 during the Second Opium War. Countless works of art were also looted from the palace and then taken abroad.  Now many of these items remain in the hands of foreign museums or private collections.

summer palace

Earlier this year, a few of those artifacts went up for auction in Paris, drawing the attention of the Chinese media. The Chinese government condemned the sale and demanded the artifacts’ return.

Now with the recent passing of the 149th anniversary of the palace’s destruction, China has announced it will send a team of experts to identify and document what items were taken from the historic palace. To do so, the team will visit museums, libraries and private collections in countries like the United States, Britain, France, Japan and more.

But the team’s goal will only involve cataloging what relics were looted in order to understand what the palace was like before it was destroyed. Still, Chen Mingjie, director of the Old Summer Palace’s management office said that they hope some artifacts will be returned to China during this retracing effort.

Like many repatriation issues, the topic has generated different views on what should be done. The hope for many Chinese netizens is that China can correct a bleak part of its country’s history.

One blogger, 村民老尚 described the history of the Old Summer Palace as a disgraceful and heavy burden.


For a long time, when looking up the term “Old Summer Palace” in the Chinese dictionary, it basically contained three words relating to heaviness and shame. The palace was like a victim that had been bullied, and all along it has existed as something that you could hardly bear to look at.


But in recent years, this heavy feeling has only grown stronger. The reasons have little to do with the history of the Old Summer Palace (nothing can change this), but have more to do with how modern Chinese people now view the palace’s history, and how that history will take shape in today’s world.

Another blogger, 高遠 discussed the difficulties China might encounter when trying to search for the relics in museums abroad.

我看这两天西方媒体报道, 他们说欧洲多国博物馆对中国追讨文物的举措感到紧张和担忧。紧张是心虚,担忧是怕自己的强权地位衰落而影响国际形象。但对我们中国来说,追讨遗失文物是早 晚要走的必由之路。

These past two days, I’ve seen the news coming from the western media. They’ve said that many European museums view China’s measures to retrieve its relics with nervousness and concern. The nervousness comes from the guilt, the concern comes from being afraid that their power and position will diminish, along with their international standing. But for us Chinese, demanding our relics back is a road that must have been taken sooner or later.

就像季羡林先生生前所讲的:“这些海外遗失文物首先是中国的,然后才是世界的”。问题是,我们才刚刚准备派出几个小分队,西方就开始感 到紧张、担忧了,大规模海外寻宝之旅不久的将来终会启程。那时候,才是真正对西方自我标榜的所谓人权、平等理念的最大考验。

It’s like what Ji Xianlin once said: “These relics that have been taken abroad are first and foremost China’s. After that, they belong to the world.” The problem is we’ve just started to prepare our research teams for this search, and the west is already starting to get nervous and worry. It won’t be long before the large-scale project actually begins its search. Once that happens, then we’ll be able to test the West and it’s bragged about human rights and equality.

Not all bloggers saw a need to search for the artifacts. 司馬平邦 commented that the palace’s significance has been overstated.

同时它是统治者用民脂民膏搭建的一个奢侈工程,毁了也就毁了,罪有应 得,洋人替老百姓拆了它,另一方面也大快人心。

At the same time, the rulers built the palace as a luxurious project, but doing so using the flesh and blood of the people. If it was destroyed, then it was destroyed. One deserves one’s punishment. If the Westerners hadn’t sacked the palace, the common people would have, and that would have made everyone satisfied.

Other comments have been made, reflecting the feeling that China is now a major power in the world, and should be treated as so.

Replying to an article about how all Chinese artifacts should be returned to the country, one user made a recent comment in the People’s Daily about how China shouldn’t even have to consider buying back any lost artifacts.


China can’t play around thinking it should buy the relics back. It should legitimately demand for the treasures return. In this way, China can demonstrate its power and dignity. Buying them back will not only give legitimacy to these stolen artifacts, but will also promote uncivilized and hostile law making.

A quick poll was done at that asked netizens what they thought about China’s search to archive the taken relics. Users seemed to be pessimistic about the project’s success, with 57.1 percent saying that it would be difficult to find and document all the looted artifacts.

Another question asked what if users though the project would help in returning artifacts to China. 58 percent said it would help a little, while 14 percent said it wouldn’t do any real benefit.

Still, 60 percent of the users in the poll, said they supported the project.

In comments made to the China Daily’s english article on the search for the relics, some netizens pointed out the benefits of having the cultural artifacts stored abroad.

Joanna 2009-10-19 17:18

i am amazed that so many relics were kept in the museums of other country, just as one of my friends said as long as the relics are well stored and some of them can be viewed for free in europe or America, it is a chance for forenginers to know more about China, especially chinese culture.

Give Credit 2009-10-19 13:27

A lot of these cultural relics were bought or stolen. However 100 years ago or even 70 years ago these treasures were lying in the original countries(when poor) as a worthless relics or art. If these cultural heritage are not “rescued” they would have been lost for ever.
Today these heritage are kept in good condition and displayed for free viewing. A good example is London Museum.


  • Henry L.

    I am shock reading some of these idiot comments. Now I understand why China were so divided and so weak for so long. To this date and age, there are still some Chineses think what happened at “Old Summer Palace” weren’t a big deal. During the time, the “Old Summer Palace” were one of the most significant structures in China. China were the most advance society of that time. Many countries came to China solicited trades. When they have nothing of value China need. They brought opium into China to addict the populace to make money. When the Chinese government intervened and seized their contrabands. These western nations concocted an excuse to invaded and looted its treasures. In the process of these looting, many valuables were destroyed and many people were killed. How can these people say it is OK for these countries to keep the artifacts as long as they let people view them for free at the museums, “at their museums in their countries”. I can’t write on anymore, just the thought of the comments above make me want to throw up. What happen to “Old Summer Palace” of China is like a country being raped. The recovery of these artifacts is a step toward regaining the dignity of this once great country.

  • Jlee

    I think China won’t get stronger if the young people keep getting more and more obsessed about what happened 50 years ago, 150 years ago, or even 5,000 years ago. Why not focus more positive energy on the present and future? Besides do you really think this Western inspired play palace for emperors would have survived Chairman Mao?

    Quick facts for Henri, at the time of the first opium war the largest producer of opium for Chinese consumption was Yunnan, second was Sichuan. The amount produced in Sichuan was more than all world imports into China combined. Addiction didn’t become the serious problem people think of until the early 1900’s when the government criminalized it. Chinese and foreign run ‘rehab’ centers gave ‘patients’ cocaine, morphine and even arsenic fight opium addiction.

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