The Yuan Ming Yuan, 圆明园, is an imperial garden in Beijing constructed by the 4th Qing Emperor Kangxi, 康熙皇帝, in 1707. Over the next 153 years, subsequent Qing emperors enlarged and refined the garden.
The 6th Qing Emperor Qianlong, 乾隆皇帝, even incorporated western style palaces in it. His creation included a water fountain with the 12 zodiac animals that would sprout water at different hours of the day.
The Yuan Ming Yuan was considered as one of the finest examples of Chinese garden landscape and was tragically destroyed by the British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860.
Destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan
On 6 October 1860, the British and French troops attacked and looted the Yuan Ming Yuan. About 2 weeks later on 18 October, James Bruce or Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, ordered the destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan in retaliation for Qing court’s mistreatment of European prisoners.
The garden was engulfed in flames for three days destroying most of the Chinese style buildings constructed with wood. Yuan Ming Yuan was attacked again in 1900 by the Eight Nation Alliance troops, 八国联军.
The Yuan Ming Yuan ruins are a tourist attraction in Beijing and to the Chinese it symbolizes the destruction and humiliation of western imperialism in China.
Incidentally, the Lord Elgin who ordered the 1860 destruction of Yuan Ming Yuan was the son of Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, who removed the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens in Greece.
The Greeks have been campaigning for the return of Elgin Marbles to Athens; a request rejected by the British government.
During the looting of Yuan Ming Yuan, many imperial treasures were stolen and taken out of China. Among the treasures stolen were sculptures of the 12 bronze zodiacs sculptures that graced Emperor Qian Long’s fountains.
Return of the zodiacs
Of the 12 zodiac sculptures, 5 have surfaced in recent years while the statuses of the rest remain unknown.
In 2000, a Chinese company, China Poly Group Corporation, recovered the Ox, Monkey and Tiger sculptures from Christies and Sotheby auctions at the cost of HK$33 million.
Three years later, the Lost Cultural Relics Recovery Fund, a Chinese NGO, recovered the Pig sculpture from a US collector for at a substantial price.
In 2007, Stanley Ho, the Macao tycoon, paid HK$69 million for the horse sculpture at a Sotheby auction and donated it to China.
In October 2008, Christies announced the auction of the rat and rabbit sculptures that were part of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection.
The auction and sale of Yuan Ming Yuan cultural relics are an extremely sensitive subject to China and the overseas Chinese community.
They felt that these cultural relics were stolen by French and British and should be return to China instead of being sold or auctioned.
The Chinese government attempted to block the sales while protectors demonstrated at the auction houses. In the case of the rabbit and rat sculpture, the Chinese government launched an unsuccessful bid to stop the sale.
The auction was disrupted by a Chinese man who successful bided for the 2 sculptures and refused to pay as an act of protest.
A flower is most beautiful in its own garden?
China is not the only country demanding the return of stolen relics. Egypt, Greece, Ethiopia, Kenya and Italy are some of the countries demanding the return of their treasures.
While some relics have been returned to their countries of origin, most attempts remain unsuccessful. The British Museum, for example, argued that returning relics to its countries of origin would mean emptying the British Museum or that they are unable to do so legally.
The debates continue and are unlikely to be resolved in the immediately future. Although the Yuan Ming Yuan was destroy, looted and torched by the British and French forces 150 years ago, the flames of Yuan Ming Yuan remain un-extinguished.