Beijing's Summer Palace, in winter. (David Gray/Reuters)

In June 1840, following the breakdown in negotiations with the Qing Dynasty over the trade of opium on Chinese territory, a large British military force captured the city of Canton (now Guangzhou) before marching up the coastline and entering central China at the Yangtze River delta. Within two years, Great Britain had routed China and, during the subsequent peace treaty, extracted significant concessions: control of Hong Kong (in perpetuity), the widening of trade in new ports, and extraterritoriality for British subjects in China—a privilege obtained by American and French governments soon afterwards.

These events comprised the First Opium War, a defeat which began a era known in China as the “century of humiliation.”  And only when Chairman Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing's Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China did this “century”—which actually lasted 109 years—come to an end. 



Since then, the “century of humiliation” has been a central part of the P.R.C.'s founding mythology, of which the short version is this: Long the world's pre-eminent civilization, China fell behind the superior technology of the West over the centuries, an imbalance that finally came to a head with the loss in the Opium Wars. This begun the most tumultuous century in the country's—or any country's—history, one that featured an incessant series of wars, occupations, and revolutions and one that did not end until the victory of the Communist Party in China's 1945-49 civil war.

Since history is written by its winners, China's “century of humiliation” is self-serving to the Chinese Communist Party, and the country's troubles did not end in 1949. But the narrative of “humiliation” is not entirely a Chinese creation. In fact, in an episode recounted by Orville Schell and John Delury in their wonderful book Wealth and Power, during the Second Opium War in 1860 the British army set out to humiliate the Chinese by attacking Beijing's Summer Palace. Located in a northwest corner of the capital, the Summer Palace (known as Yuanmingyuan in Chinese) was an exquisite array of buildings, lakes, and parks, and served as the primary residence of the imperial court. In the Opium War, it had no military significance. But following the Chinese murder of several dozen British and French troops in an ill-conceived hostage crisis, the British took revenge by targeting the Summer Palace. Schell and Delury write:

The destruction of Yuanmingyuan was to be a “solemn act of retribution,”said the British commander Lord Elgin, in which no blood would be spilled, but an emperor's “pride as well as his feelings,” would be crushed. Indeed, before the foreign expeditionary force arrived in Beijing, the young emperor Xianfeng had already fled along with his concubine (soon to be known as the Empress Dowager Cixi) to safe haven in Manchuria. With the Son of Heaven in hiding far to the north in his hunting lodge, British and French soldiers set about teaching the Qing [Dynasty] a lesson they would never forget: that the British crown would not tolerate having the rights of Englishmen violated, even in faraway china. “As a deliberate act of humiliation,” historian James Hevia explains, “it was an object lesson for others who might contemplate defying British power.”

The systematic plunder of the palaces, which contained an enormous amount of priceless artifacts, lasted well into 1860. When it was finished, the men immediately understood they had secured a psychological victory over the Chinese:

“The great vulnerable point in a Mandarin's character lies in his pride,” [Lieutenant Colonel G.J. Wolsely, part of the British expeditionary force] observed. “The destruction of the Yuanmingyuan was the most crushing of all blows which could be leveled at his Majesty's inflated notions of universal supremacy.” Reducing the gardens to ruins was “the strongest proof of our superior strength” and “served to undeceive all Chinamen in their absurd conviction of their monarch's universal sovereignty.”

Today, a century and a half later, the Communist Party continues to preserve the ruined state of the Summer Palace as a reminder of the British plunder.

The history of war is full of many examples of where one side attacked a strategically insignificant installation in order to score a psychological victory over an opponent. But Schell and Delury's account of the destruction of the Summer Palace encapsulates just how large a role humiliation played in the last two centuries of Chinese history, and how his role in ending this humiliation forever colored Chinese impressions of Mao Zedong.

I've always known of previous horrendous acts by the "British" on my own country and of course brutal slaying of thousands of Saladin's captured soldiers and their families on the hill of Al 'Ayadiyeh


Richard The Lionheart Massacres

The Saracens, 1191
In the year 1187, the Muslim leader Saladin re-conquered the city of Jerusalem [see "The Crusaders Capture Jerusalem"] as well as most of the Crusader strongholds throughout the Holy Land. In response, the kings of Europe including Frederick Babarossa of Germany (who died on route), Phillip of France and Richard I of England (the Lionheart) mounted a campaign to rescue the city. The Third Crusade was underway.

Key to the campaign's success was the capture of the port city of Acre. King Richard arrived on the scene in June 1191 to find the city under siege by a Christian army. In the distance, Saladin threatened - his army too weak to overwhelm the besiegers, but too strong to be dislodged.


Richard's progress through the Holy Land
Click underlined items for more information
Intensifying the bombardment of the city, Richard and the French King, Phillip, slowly broke the city's walls, weakening its defenses while simultaneously starving the occupiers into submission. Finally, on July 12, the Muslim defenders and Crusaders agreed to surrender terms. In exchange for sparing the lives of the defenders, Saladin would pay a ransom of 200,000 gold pieces, release some 1500 Christian prisoners and return the Holy Cross. These actions were to be accomplished within one month after the fall of the city. Richard would hold 2,700 Muslim prisoners as hostage until the terms were met.

Saladin immediately ran into problems meeting his part of the bargain and the deadline came without payment of the terms. As a compromise, Saladin proposed that Richard release his prisoners in return for part of the ransom with the remainder to be paid at a later date. Saladin would provide hostages to Richard to assure payment. Alternatively, he proposed to give Richard what money he had and allow Richard to keep the prisoners in return for Christian hostages to be held until the remainder of the money was raised and the Muslim prisoners released. Richard countered that he would accept the partial payment but Saladin must accept his royal promise to release his prisoners when he received the remainder of the ransom. Neither ruler would accept his opponent's terms. Richard declared the lives of the Muslim defenders of Acre forfeit and set August 20 as the date for their execution.

Slaughter In The Desert

Beha-ed-Din was a member of Saladin's court and (along with much of the Saracen army who watched from a distance) witnessed the massacre of 2,700 of his comrades:

"Then the king of England, seeing all the delays interposed by the Sultan to the execution of the treaty, acted perfidiously as regards his Musulinan prisoners. On their yielding the town he had engaged to grant their life, adding that if the Sultan carried out the bargain he would give them freedom and suffer them to carry off their children and wives; if the Sultan did not fulfill his engagements they were to be made slaves. Now the king broke his promises to them and made open display of what he had till now kept hidden in his heart, by carrying out what he had intended to do after he had received the money and the Frank prisoners. It is thus that people of his nation ultimately admitted.

In the afternoon of Tuesday, 27 Rajab, [August 20] about four o'clock, he came out on horseback with all the Frankish army, knights, footmen, Turcoples, and advanced to the pits at the foot of the hill of Al 'Ayadiyeh, to which place be had already sent on his tents. The Franks, on reaching the middle of the plain that stretches between this hill and that of Keisan, close to which place the sultan's advanced guard had drawn back, ordered all the Musulman


Richard watches the massacre
From a 15th century illustration
prisoners, whose martyrdom God had decreed for this day, to be brought before him. They numbered more than three thousand and were all bound with ropes. The Franks then flung themselves upon them all at once and massacred them with sword and lance in cold blood. Our advanced guard had already told the Sultan of the enemy's movements and he sent it some reinforcements, but only after the massacre. The Musulmans, seeing what was being done to the prisoners, rushed against the Franks and in the combat, which lasted till nightfall, several were slain and wounded on either side. On the morrow morning our people gathered at the spot and found the Musulmans stretched out upon the ground as martyrs for the faith. They even recognised some of the dead, and the sight was a great affliction to them. The enemy had only spared the prisoners of note and such as were strong enough to work.

The motives of this massacre are differently told; according to some, the captives were slain by way of reprisal for the death of those Christians whom the Musulmans had slain. Others again say that the king of England, on deciding to attempt the conquest of Ascalon, thought it unwise to leave so many prisoners in the town after his departure. God alone knows what the real reason was. "

As Brits, considering all this. Doesn't it take you down a peg or two?! I enjoy history and I suppose it's why I like to travel as I like to get both sides' view on historical events. It makes me ponder how tenuous our position is here, I mean "here" collectively as countries outside of Britain that us expats have migrated to. How do you feel this relates to you or yourself as a Briton in a foreign land that our nation has - from a very great height - shat all over?

I think the one lesson I take from this is one of humility.