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After Notre Dame Blaze, Chinese Netizens Remember How the French Burned Down the Old Summer Palace

While many mourn the Notre Dame blaze, thousands of Chinese netizens point out the burning of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing was actually “worse.”

Manya Koetse

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While many people across the world are mourning the devastating fire that left parts of the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris completely destroyed, Chinese social media users have collectively responded by remembering a painful part of China’s history: the burning of the Old Summer Palace in 1860 by Western forces.

Update April 18, read: Blazing Memories: About the Comparison of the Notre Dame Fire to the Burning of the Old Summer Palace (Op-Ed)

As news of the catastrophic fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral (巴黎圣母院) in Paris on Monday made headlines across the world, the Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan 圆明园) suddenly became a trending topic on Chinese social media.

For some, the Old Summer Palace trend was an unexpected reaction to the Notre Dame blaze. Although prominent Weibo users commented on the issue, there seemed to be no official accounts leading the trend – it seemingly came out of nowhere.

A dominating sentiment in discussions on the Notre Dame blaze on Chinese social media is that the burning of the Old Summer Palace by the British and the French, almost 160 years ago, was actually more tragic than what happened in Paris this week.

The historical event that is at the center of online discussions is that of October 18, 1860, when the Anglo-French army, ordered by the British Lord Elgin, burnt to the ground the Yuan Ming Yuan during the Second Opium War (1856-1860).

The Yuan Ming Yuan was the summer palace in the Beijing suburbs that was the main imperial residence of Qianlong Emperor, constructed in various stages from the early-18th century (see Spence 1990, 181).

Yuan Ming Yuan after being burned and plundered (via History sina).

Unsatisfied with the Treaty of Nanjing and, among others, demanding more Chinese cities and ports to open for trade, the Anglo-French army invaded Beijing in 1860. They plundered the Yuan Ming Yuan, which consisted of more than a hundred buildings and scenic spots filled with books and art treasures. The burning came afterward, to destroy the evidence of their looting. The fire blazed for three days and three nights, and left the enormous palace grounds in ruins (also see Dr. Ong Siew Chey 2009, 79).

One of the persons mentioning the Old Summer Palace in relation to the burning of the Notre Dame is Chinese actor and comedian Zhou Libo, who commented on April 16 that this time, with the Notre Dame going up in flames and “Quasimodo being burned,” is a good time to think about the Yuan Ming Yuan, writing: “Compared to the Yuan Ming Yuan, the Notre Dame is just a garden.”

All across Chinese social media, many people showed little sympathy for the burning of the Notre Dame, comparing it to the devastating blaze of 1860 that ruined the Yuan Ming Yuan.

One commenter wrote: “A long, long time ago, a group of robbers set my backyard on fire and snatched away the precious treasures. Today, their house is on fire. I am very sorry for the treasures that were lost. But the fire was not started by me.”

Others wrote: “I know I shouldn’t, but I cannot restrain myself: ha ha ha ha ha!” – receiving more than 3200 likes.

Many mentioned the money needed to rebuild the Notre Dame, saying they would not contribute money and instead demanding the French to contribute to the rebuilding of the Old Summer Palace.

“I have visited the ruins of Yuan Ming Yuan. Therefore, from the perspective of architecture and culture, I feel that the destruction of the Notre Dame of Paris is really a loss for all of mankind,” another commenter wrote: “But from the perspective of our nation, I feel that the French got what they deserve to see this kind of history go up in smoke.”

Despite the general trend on Weibo that puts the Yuan Ming Yuan incident above the Notre Dame disaster, there are also voices criticizing this movement, and many people expressing their sadness over what happened to the historic cathedral.

“This just makes me tear up,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “Culture belongs to a nation, but also to the world. It just pains me to see these beautiful things disappear.”

Author Zeng Pengyu (@曾鹏宇) writes on Weibo: “Many people say they do not sympathize with the French. I just want to say that historical buildings are innocent: it’s only people who are guilty. Also, when the Yuan Ming Yuan was burned down by the British and French allied forces, the French writer Victor Hugo condemned it. This is recorded in many documents. Born in China today, we should be confident and objective.”

Yan Feng (严锋), a professor at Fudan University, posted: “The Notre Dame cathedral was constructed in 1163, the Yuan Ming Yuan was destroyed in 1860. The people who burned the Yuan Ming Yuan were not the people who built the Notre Dame of Paris. They were separated by 700 years. The French feudal separatists were in no way French according to modern-day standards. Every injustice has its perpetrator and every debt its debtor, why should you let the Notre Dame bear the responsibility of burning down the Yuan Ming Yuan?”

The official Weibo account of the Yuan Ming Yuan park also responded to the controversy on Weibo, simply writing: “We wholeheartedly hope that cultural relics will be able to avert disaster, and pass on their history from one generation to the next.”

Also read: Blazing Memories: About the Comparison of the Notre Dame Fire to the Burning of the Old Summer Palace (Op-Ed)

By Manya Koetse , with contributions from Miranda Barnes and Boyu Xiao

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please email us.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China and Covid19

The ‘Blank White Paper Protest’ in Beijing and Online Discussions on “Outside Forces”

As people in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places take to the streets holding up white papers, some have dubbed this the “A4 Revolution.”

Manya Koetse

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A majority of social media commenters support those who have recently taken to the streets, using blank sheets as a sign of protest against censorship and stringent Covid measures. But there are also online voices warning Chinese young people not to be influenced by ‘external forces.’

Over the past few days, there have been scenes of unrest and protest movements in various places across China.

While there were protests in Shanghai for the second night in a row, Beijing also saw crowds gathering around the Liangmahe area in the city’s Chaoyang District on Sunday night.

Some videos showed crowds softly singing the song “Farewell” (送别) in commemoration of those who lost their lives during the deadly inferno in Urumqi.

Later, people protested against stringent Covid measures.

“The crowds at Liangmahe are amazing,” some people on Weibo commented.

Photos and videos coming from the area showed how people were holding up blank sheets of white paper.

Earlier this weekend, students in Nanjing and Xi’an also held up blank paper sheets in protest of censorship and as the only ‘safe’ way to say what could otherwise not be said. This form of protest also popped up during the Hong Kong protests, as also described in the recent book by Louisa Lim (Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong).

The recurring use of blank paper sheets led to some dubbing the protests an “A4 Revolution.”

“When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijng’s Liangmahe,” one person on Weibo wrote on Sunday night.

Another Beijing-based netizen wrote: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.”

“I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in 2022. I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in Beijing. I do not dare to believe that again it will all have been useless tomorrow morning,” one Weibo user commented.

During the night, various people at the scene shouted out things such as “we want to go out and work,” and other hopes they have. One person yelled: “I want to go out and see a movie!”

“I want to go and see a movie.”

The phrase “I wanna go watch a movie” (“我要看电影”) was also picked up on social media, with some people commenting : “I am not interested in political regimes, I just want to be able to freely see a movie.” “I want to see a movie! I want to sit in a cinema and watch a movie! I want to watch a movie that is uncensored!”

Despite social media users showing a lot of support for students and locals standing up and making their voices heard, not everyone was supportive of this gathering in Beijing. Some suggested that since Liangmahe is near Beijing’s foreign embassy district, there must be some evil “foreign forces” meddling and creating unrest.

Others expressed that people were starting to demand too many different things instead of solely focusing on China’s zero Covid policies, losing the momentum of the original intention of the protest.

Political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also posted about the recent unrest on his Weibo account on Sunday night:

The people have the right to express their opinions, and you may have good and honest aspirations and have the intention to express legitimate demands. But I want to remind you that many things have their own rules, and when everyone participates in the movement, its direction might become very difficult for ordinary participants to continue to control, and it can easily to be used or even hijacked by separate forces, which may eventually turn into a flood that destroys all of our lives.”

Hu also called on people to keep striving to solve existing problems, but to stay clear-headed, suggesting that it is important for the people and the government to maintain unity in this challenging time.

The term “outside forces” or “external forces” (外部势力) increasingly popped up in social media discussions on late Sunday night.

“I worry a lot of meddling by external forces. Let’s be vigilant of a color revolution. I just hope things will get better,” one netizen from Hubei wrote.

“Young people should not be incited by a few phrases and blindly follow. Everyone will approve of people rationally defending their rights, but stay far away from color revolutions.”

The idea that foreign forces meddle in Chinese affairs for their own agenda has come up various times over the past years, during the Hong Kong protests but also during small-scale protests, such as a local student protest in Chengdu in 2021.

The term “color revolution” is recurring in these kind of discussions, with some netizens suggesting that foreign forces, such as the CIA, are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government.

“It’s not always external forces, it can also just be opposition,” one person on Weibo replied: “In every country you’ll have different opinions.”

“What outside forces?” another commenter said: “I’m not an external force! I am just completely fed up with the Covid measures!”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China and Covid19

Tribute to Urumqi at Shanghai’s Wulumqi Road

In Shanghai, people paid tribute to the victims of the Ulumqi fire by lighting candles, and also found other ways to vent their frustrations.

Manya Koetse

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Image by @导筒directube

It has been a restless Saturday night in several places across China. Following the unrest in Urumqi after a devastating fire, various places across the country have seen people gathering, chanting together, and taking their anger to the streets.

There is anger about excessive Covid measures, long lockdowns, and how it has all brought suffering to many people.

One place where people gathered is Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, a street named after Urumqi (it is actually ‘Urumqi Road’ but the English name is commonly spelled as Wulumuqi).

In Shanghai, people paid tribute to the victims of the Urumqi fire by lighting candles, but also found other ways to vent frustrations related to the current Covid measures.

Some at the scene, for example, wore face masks with ‘404’ written on them – referring to the recurring online censorship in light of various epidemic-related incidents (404 is the common error code given when a page or file can no longer be found).

They also chanted for “freedom,” told the Covid QR ‘venue codes’ to go f*ck themselves, sang the The Internationale in Chinese, and held up white papers in protest (this has been a recurring sign of protest).

On Weibo, there was a flood of comments related to the Shanghai gathering.

“Don’t let history repeat itself. Please, everybody, protect yourself, go home and rest in time, remember this passion of yours and change your surrounding by following your own goals.”

Although social media users showed support for the protest in Shanghai, a majority of commenters also were worried about people placing themselves in harm’s way, reminding those on the streets to “protect themselves” no matter what.

After 3:00 AM, local time, Weibo shut down live commenting on the Shanghai topic.

On Twitter, Shanghai-based journalist Eva Rammeloo (@eefjerammeloo) reported that around 4:00 am local time, police reinforcement arrived at the scene to disperse the crowds, with some people allegedly being arrested.

“We’re all mourning Urumqi in our own ways,” one person on Weibo commented: “I think you’re really brave.”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse 

If you appreciate what we do, please subscribe here or support us by donating.

Featured image by @导筒directube

 

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