By Kevin James Jeffery 5:26 pm PST

Over the course of two days in October 1860, around 5,000 British and French soldiers took part in what has been described as the greatest act of cultural vandalism in modern Chinese history — the pillaging and destroying of The Old Summer Palace near Beijing. More accurately, the site was known for its garden, or collection of gardens, called The Garden of Perfect Brightness — Yuanmingyuan (圓明園).

In total, an estimated 1.5 million treasures were stolen from The Old Summer Palace, considered once a paradise on earth. After which, the soldiers proceeded to burn the place to the ground. The loot they collected was then taken back to where it was sold at auction to the highest bidders or turned into war trophies.

A set of 18th-century engravings by Chinese court artist Yi Lantai documents the European-inspired section of Yuanmingyuan—here, the northern side of the Xieqiqu, one of the main palaces. (Photo: MIT Visualizing Cultures)

Back to the beginning

To understand why this act took place, we must first trace back the origins of the conflict to the first Opium War, which was fought between Britain and the Qing dynasty. Two decades before the sacking of The Garden of Perfect Brightness, at the conclusion of the war in 1842, a defeated Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing.

The treaty was designed to compel China to open its market to foreign trade. But throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the British believed that the Qing was not fully abiding by the treaty’s terms. After the Chinese authorities compounded a British cargo ship in 1856, which they suspected had been involved in piracy, war was declared on Qing by an alliance of British and French to force them to play by their rules.

In August 1860, the Angelo-French forces were ready to strike the heart of the Qing Empire, as they camped on the outskirts of Tianjin, only 80 miles from the capital city of Beijing. The British high commissioner to China, James Bruce, made a series of demands, including accepting the British terms of trade and the release of dozens of British prisoners held hostage in Beijing.

The imperial commissioner who represented the Qing emperor, Xianfeng, refused to comply with Bruce’s demands and denied a meeting with the emperor. Therefore, Bruce ordered the British forces, commanded by James Hope Grant, to advance toward Beijing. The French army also joined, bringing the total number of troops to over 10,000.

As the Angelo-French continued to battle toward Beijing, their troops were joined by more enforcement, bringing their total headcount up to 17,000. Upon capturing the capital on October 6, 1860, the British and French forces discovered that British hostages had been tortured to death and the emperor had fled the capital. To avenge their deaths and secure rewards, 5,00 troops set out for the enormous garden complex to the northeast of Beijing.

Looting of the palace and gardens

The majority of The Old Summer Palace was built during the 18th century, during the reigns of three emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. The grounds covered a total area of 3.5 square kilometers and consisted of an elaborate array of pavilions, temples, and palaces amongst man-made lakes and hills. Most importantly for invaders, the complex housed millions of unique, priceless treasures.

Looting only lasted two days, from the 7th to the 8th of October 1860. It is estimated that 1.5 million objects were taken in total. Reports claim that some soldiers used chandeliers for target practice and played catch with large mirrors. Light and portable high-value items taken were pearls, ivory, jade, gold, silk, and more. More oversized items included the throne of the first ruler of the Qin dynasty.

On the 18th of October, the British high commissioner ordered the burning of the summer palace. Shortly after, prince Gong signed The Convention of Peking on October 24th, 1860. But the sacking of The Summer Palace was an incalculable loss and is remembered today as the greatest act of cultural vandalism in modern history.

The future of the palace grounds

Hundreds of thousands of mostly Chinese tourists visit The Garden of Perfect Brightness every year to remember its history and glory. There have been many attempts to restore the grounds scattered with the ruins of the original palace, with the latest reconstruction proposal in 2020. But in the end, Chinese leaders agreed that the project was too expensive.

For now, digital reimaging is the closest we can get to experience the gardens and buildings for how they were. But the ruins are still a potent reminder of a paradise on earth that once was.