Or: A Walk Through Two Sides of History

Studying for exams too early never works for me. I’m extremely productive for a couple days, but then I burn out and end up forgetting everything I’d prepared. So on an extra afternoon off before my last final exam, I set out for Yuanmingyuan to escape the monotony of my room.

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Yuanmingyuan is the old summer palace for the imperial family. It was built at the height of the Qing Dynasty, and remained the preferred residence for the big royalty until it was destroyed by British and French troops.

Far fewer visitors go to Yuanmingyuan than Yiheyuan, but I much prefer Yuanmingyuan over Yiheyuan. Perhaps it’s because of all the tourist traffic, but Yiheyuan feels too manmade for my taste. With all the remodeling and weekly paint jobs, Yiheyuan is more a showcase than a piece of history.

Yuanmingyuan, however, has been kept intact as a ruins. Yes, all the lakes and hills are manmade as well, but it feels more…wild. I love that I can walk through the bones of fallen grandeur and touch the same stones as kings and armies.

But Yuanmingyuan, like the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, is a ground where blood has spilled. Although you can see from the rubble what beauty once stood, you also see the aftermath of one of China’s greatest losses on the global stage.

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This is especially evident in the language on the plaques and signs around the park. For one thing, there is very little English around the park. When you read the content on the signs, it’s full of phrases like ‘the allied forces of British and French troops broke in’ and ‘the burning, burglaring, and destruction of national treasure’. Not to say that any of this is historically inaccurate, per se, but there’s a definite emotional trigger being pulled.

In a way, I admire this about China. The unabashed reverence to which history is given here stuns me, because despite all of China’s social messes and cultural misidentification, China’s memory is long, and China’s pride is insurmountable. This holds the people together and binds their national identity before the government has to issue a single nationalist film.

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The largest manmade lake, Fuhai ( 福海 fú hǎi ) was completely frozen over. That speckle in the middle-left of the photo is a man who walked straight over the lake.

On the other hand, I do not admire the middle-aged men spitting on the statue of Victor Hugo and ranting on about why do the Westerners bother coming to Yuanmingyuan, because haven’t they done enough already to this place?

I don’t feel the least bit proud when I hear the mothers, herding their young through Rococo columns, say “This building was destroyed because the Westerners didn’t think we were worthy of having their architecture here”.

None of this sits well with me, but what bothered me most was a group of American boys, college age, filming their own version of the Harlem Shake in the middle of the ruins, and miming pissing into the dried-up fountains. To a degree, I get the whole “young and wild” thing, but there’s a certain degree of propriety that I believe is owed to a place where tragedy once occurred, whether it was for you or for someone else.

One of my favorite things about historical sites in China are the conclusion plaques. Seriously, they have a giant block of stone or wall of glass with CONCLUSION carved on it. And what follows is always a terrific snapshot of Chinese foreign policy. The words on Yuanmingyuan’s Conclusion epithet calls Yuanmingyuan’s fall one of China’s most humiliating moments. According to this plaque, the only way to overwrite this deep shame is to go out and learn about the Western culture, acquire their knowledge and technology, and use it to propel China beyond the West so that they can never look down upon on us again.

It’s damn good pathos. Like the Declaration of Independence, read it in the right tone and you can really feel the blood racing in your veins. The difference is instead of raising arms, the Chinese incentive is raising your test scores.

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