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Before the Wall - What Remains

In the second of a series of blog posts, Before the Wall writer Chris Ruffle looks at what remains from the Opium War of 1860.

What could possibly remain from a war that happened 160 years ago? And it was a small war at that; during the Second Opium War, the Anglo-French allied army never had any more than 20,000 men in the field, and the whole war was over in less than 5 months, landing to departure. But there are material remains to see for the interested and the determined. The biggest challenge to the physical remains of the war comes from China’s dynamic growth and urbanization over the past 30 years. The Dagu Forts, which repulsed a frontal attack by the British in 1859, but succumbed to an attack from the rear in 1860, can still be seen. They lie at the mouth of the Hai River (then called Peiho) a full 60kms from the centre of Tianjin. But such has been the expansion of one of China’s largest cities, the forts are now being subsumed in Tianjin’s Binhai economic zone.

The last line of Chinese defence ahead of Beijing was at Baliqiao (literally the Eight Li Bridge, indicating its distance from Beijing). The Illustrated London News captured the climactic French assault on the bridge, and Felix Beato took a calmer picture in the battle’s aftermath.

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The bridge still stands today, but has been surrounded by Beijing’s unremarkable suburbs. It is only with closer attention that it reveals its many lovely carved lions, still staring at the invader.

The massive walls of Beijing which faced the invaders were mostly demolished in the 1960’s to make way for the first ring road (the government are now finishing the eighth). However, many of the city gates have been preserved to give a sense of the scale of the challenge. Inside the city, the mansion of Prince Gong, the brother of the emperor who led negotiations with the foreigners, has been preserved, though the contents of his study are currently the subject of a special exhibition at the palace Museum in Taipei. The Buddhist temple, Xihuangsi, where the auction of loot from the Yuanmingyuan took place, still stands, but is less welcoming of visitors, based on your correspondent’s experience.

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A few miles to the Northwest of Beijing, not far from the elite Beijing University, the imperial palace, the Yuanmingyuan, which the allied army burnt in retaliation for the murder and execution of hostages, is now a vast park. It is a pleasant enough park, a refuge from the dust and noise of Beijing, but little remains to see, apart from the odd arch over the sculpted streams and lakes.

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There is a small museum, set up belatedly in 1987, the main feature of which is a copy of some of the zodiac animal heads, which were part of a foreign-designed water clock to amuse the emperor. Although these heads have come to symbolize the looting of the Yuanmingyuan, they are ironically probably one of the few things that the soldiers did not steal, the clock having been poorly maintained and disassembled 20 years before the campaign. The main remains, and the focus of most visits, are the fragmentary ruins of exotic Western-style stone buildings constructed in a corner of the imperial gardens as a kind of Qing dynasty Disney World. Being stone, these survived the initial fire better than wood palaces, but were clearly heavily mined for stone by locals in the wake of the Yuanmingyuan’s burning. They remain, however, an elegiac comment on the waste of war. A better taste of what the Yuanmingyuan was really like is probably to be gained from a visit to the neighbouring Summer Palace (Yiheyuan) reconstructed in the aftermath of the war by the home-sick Empress Dowager Cixi.

Interested parties do not need to travel as far as China to find remains of this war. An estimated 1.5m objects were looted and have found their way into museums around the world. Notable holders of Yuanmingyuan material include the Musee Chinois in Fontainbleu, the V&A, the British Museum, the Wallace Collection and the National Museum of Scotland. Some of Britain’s army museums are also well represented; I recommend the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham Kent, in which “Chinese “ Gordon was a captain during this campaign. This was also the unit of Sir Robert Napier, who led an army in a similar operation at the Ethiopian emperor’s fortress of Magdala 8 years later.

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There are less tangible memorials. The participants of the campaign, in an increasingly literate army, left a plethora of eye-witness accounts and memoirs in the British Library and National Archives. The former also houses a cache of music written by Sir James Hope Grant, the leader of the British expeditionary forces, who never went to war without his cello. Listening to the piece “Resignation” it is easy to imagine the weary general steering his horse back across that distant battlefield.

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Before the Wall, premiering at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe
17th-26th August, every day at 13:30
Gilded Balloon at the Museum
https://gildedballoon.co.uk/programme/before-the-wall/

Posted on:Tuesday 23rd July, 2019