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

Understanding why the Yuan Ming Yuan went trending in China after the Notre Dame fire.

Manya Koetse

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A What’s on Weibo news article on Chinese online responses to the Notre Dame fire attracted very mixed reactions on English-language social media this week.

After the fire at the Notre Dame in Paris earlier this week, What’s on Weibo published an article describing Chinese online responses to the devastating blaze, and the ubiquitous comments that compared the destruction of the iconic French cathedral to the burning of the Chinese Old Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing by the Anglo-French army in 1860.

There have been many reactions to this story on various social media platforms. From one side, there were those who questioned why we would even publish an article like that, suggesting that our position in covering this trend was biased. On the other side, there were those who jumped into the discussion, blaming Chinese for playing the victim and ignoring the destruction of old historical buildings or Mosques within their own country over recent years.

The reactions to this article and overall trend show the polarized stances on social issues and media in China, and how to cover them. Some suggested that it was not fair to write down the “negative social media opinions of a few Chinese commenters,” saying that it “reflected badly” on China overall, or that they were “irrelevant.”

Covering the voices of a few dozen ‘trolls’ and presenting them as an ‘overall sentiment’ is not what we do at What’s on Weibo.

Some people pointed out that the comparison of the Notre Dame blaze to the burning of the Old Summer Palace was not something that most Chinese agreed with. As also covered in our article, there were indeed many commenters, including historians and Key Opinion Leaders, who opposed to the Yuan Ming Yuan trend in light of the Notre Dame fire.

The fact of the matter still is that the Old Summer Palace became a massive topic of online debate following the Notre Dame fire. Ignoring such a trend in covering Weibo responses to the tragic Paris incident would be a huge blind spot problem.

Instead of condemning these Chinese online responses, ignoring they are there, or trivializing their relevance, it is perhaps more constructive to consider where they come from, and understanding that the history of the Old Summer Palace is still deeply ingrained in the collective memory of the Chinese people and nation.

Before further elaborating on this, let’s first go back to the trend itself.

 

From Notre Dame to Yuan Ming Yuan

 

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.

Besides all the people who mourned the destruction of the historic cathedral, and those who posted photos of their previous visits to the scenic spot, there were many Chinese netizens who started addressing the plundering and burning down of the Yuan Ming Yuan (“Garden of Perfect Brightness”) in 1860, leading to the Notre Dame and the Old Summer Palace becoming top trending topics on Weibo at the same time.

As Notre Dame goes trending on Weibo, so does the Old Summer Palace (top 4 top trending).

On April 18, WeChat self-media account Fang Zhouzi (方舟子) wrote about the reaction: “On Chinese internet, a peculiar response started to emerge, as many people suddenly started remembering the burning of the Yuan Ming Yuan by the Anglo-French forces 159 years ago, and thereupon saying that the Notre Dame deserved to be burned.”

It is unclear who first drew a comparison between the Notre Dame and the Yuan Ming Yuan, but on April 16, actor Zhou Libo (周立波) wrote on Weibo that “compared to the Yuan Ming Yuan, the Notre Dame is just a garden.” A former editor at the Phoenix News Military Channel, Jin Hao (金昊), also published an article on WeChat titled “Mourning it, my ass! I’m pleased with the big fire at Notre Dame” (“哀悼个屁!巴黎圣母院大火,我很欣慰!”) (since deleted).

On other social media sites, such as Douban, people also started posting blogs with titles such as “the Notre Dame collapse makes me think of the Old Summer Palace” (“巴黎圣母院的倒塌让我想起了圆明园”).

An exploration of search queries on Chinese search engine Baidu shows that at the time when ‘Notre Dame’ peaks as a query on April 16, so does the term ‘Yuan Ming Yuan.’ Similarly, on Google Trends, the Chinese query ‘Notre Dame’ shows the Yuan Ming Yuan Park as the number two related topic in its overview of the past week.

Baidu trends show that both the search terms ‘Notre Dame’ (A) and ‘Yuan Ming Yuan’ (B) simultaneously peak on April 16.

At time of writing, there are dozens of pages on Weibo filled with comments relating to the Notre Dame/Old Summer Palace comparison. We won’t list many of them here, but some of the comments include reactions such as: “Now you can also experience how it feels when art and culture are burned,” “I might have a narrow sense of patriotism, but seeing the Notre Dame burn makes me happy inside,” and “even a hundred Notre Dames still don’t make the Old Summer Palace,” with many netizens claiming that the loss of the Old Summer Palace was just as bad, or rather worse, than the destruction of the Notre Dame.

These collective responses to the Notre Dame fire also drew much criticism. State media outlet CCTV published an article that condemned the comparison of the Notre Dame and the Old Summer Palace, stating that people “should not vent their emotions in the name of history” (Li Xuefei 2019).

Various other news channels also published critique, including one article titled “The Notre Dame fire as retribution for the burning of Yuanmingyuan? Please stop this inhumane line of reasoning” (“巴黎圣母院大火是烧圆明园的报应?快停下反人类思维”).

As covered in our previous write-up, there were also many voices on Weibo denouncing the trend. One of them was Yan Feng (严锋), a professor at Fudan University, who 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?

“First of all, we are people, then we are Chinese,” another popular comment said: “The loss of such a historical cultural gem is a loss for all mankind.”

 

Collective Memories of Yuan Ming Yuan

 

In October of 1860, British and French troops sacked and burned the Old Summer Palace, which was once a massive complex consisting of more than a hundred buildings, pavilions, and scenic spots, built since the 17th century for the Qing emperors.

The event took place at the end of the Second Opium War. 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 was 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, leaving the enormous palace grounds in ruins (Chey 2009, 79).

The site of the once magnificent Old Summer Palace is now the Yuanmingyuan Ruins Park, an initiative that was set up in the 1980s after decades of neglect. In “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan,” Haiyan Lee calls the site a “national wound” (2009). It is a symbolic space, where the ruins remind visitors of the injustice China once suffered at the hands of Western powers.

This injustice is an important incident in China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation,” the time from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s during which China was attacked, weakened, and torn by foreign forces.

The “Century of Humiliation” still plays an important role in China today, as young people are also taught that this historical consciousness is important. The four character slogan “Wù wàng guóchǐ” (勿忘国耻), “Never forget national humiliation”, is frequently repeated in Chinese media, museums, schools, documentaries, and in popular culture.

Young Chinese students carrying a sign “Never Forget National Humiliation”, image via Xinhua.

As described in the insightful work by Zheng Wang, Never Forget National Humiliation, the historical memory of China’s era of humiliation has become part of Chinese national identity, promoted in official discourse, and often unconsciously yet profoundly influencing people’s perceptions and actions. This is also what collective memory is: an accumulation of memory-forming processes that take place on both conscious and non-conscious levels (Koetse 2012, 10).

The Yuan Ming Yuan Park is a particularly significant cultural heritage site where the remembrance of the humiliations and injuries China suffered at the hands of foreign imperialists comes to life through the ruins (Lee 2008, 169).

 

Blazing Memories

 

Collective memory and nations are tied together in many ways, as historical memories serve as an important vehicle to unify the nation. They also play an important part in how people from different communities, societies, or nations will interpret big or important events that happen in the world today.

When certain news makes headlines, it is not uncommon for people to reflect on it speaking from their own experiences and the collective memory of their own nation or bigger community – especially when the place where it happens is far removed from them.

This is not unique to China. To grasp, process, and comment on faraway incidents, it is sometimes easier to relate it to something that is closer to you.

Former American first lady Michelle Obama visited Paris earlier this week for her book tour, and told the audience about how shocked she was about the Notre Dame blaze, briefly comparing the incident to the devastating American 9/11 attacks.* Does it make sense to compare the burning of the Notre Dame to the 9/11 attacks? Perhaps not. Yet Obama was not the only one to raise the 9/11 events; some on Twitter even called the burning of the Notre Dame “a cultural 9/11” disaster.

Seeing the overwhelming responses to the Notre Dame fire on Chinese social media, where so many people linked it to Chinese history, the reaction perhaps should not be whether these online responses and media discussions were either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – instead, it is important to understand where they come from, and how people from various backgrounds, cultures, or religions, often use their own cultural or social frameworks, historical narratives, and dominating ideas to make sense of what is happening around them.

As the Notre Dame trend on Chinese social media shows, but what’s beyond the scope of this article, is that the mechanisms of online nationalism and anti-foreign sentiments often also come into play once these memory-machines start running.

In the end, the Notre Dame fire actually has nothing to do with the history of the Old Summer Palace. But the news of the Notre Dame blaze was enough reason for many Chinese netizens to trigger and bring up this memory of Chinese suffering that still exists in the minds of the people today.

Instead of condemning that, or trivializing news reports on these trends, one could try to understand it, and then see it as a completely separate issue from the Notre Dame fire – as many people on Weibo also do.

By Manya Koetse

Recommended reading:

References

Fang Zhouzi 方舟子. 2019. “巴黎圣母院和圆明园有什么关系?” April 18, Fang Zhouzi / Self-Media WeChat link[4.18.19].

Koetse, Manya. 2012. “The ‘Magic’ of Memory. Chinese and Japanese Re-Remembrances of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).” Research Master thesis, Leiden University.

Lee, Haiyuan. 2009. “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan – Or, How to Enjoy a National Wound.” Modern China 35 (2): 155-190.

Li Xuefei 李雪菲. 2019. “巴黎圣母院火灾怎能与火烧圆明园混为一谈 狭隘的民族主义可休矣.” April 16, CCTV,Sina News https://finance.sina.com.cn/roll/2019-04-16/doc-ihvhiqax3118848.shtml [4.18.19].

Ong, Siew Chey. 2009. China Condensed: 5, 000 Years of History & Culture. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International.

Weatherley, Robert D., and Ariane Rosen. 2013. “Fanning the Flames of Popular Nationalism: The Debate in China over the Burning of the Old Summer Palace.” Asian perspective 37(1):53-76.

Zheng Wang. 2012. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press.

* Segment on Michelle Obama in Paris from Dutch “Talkshow M” of April 17th, 36.00 min.

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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    China Digital

    The Rise of Facial Recognition in China’s Real Estate Market

    Some homebuyers counter the rise of facial recognition technology in real estate offices by wearing helmets during their visit.

    Manya Koetse

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    The issue of Chinese real estate agents using facial recognition techniques to collect information about their clients has sparked privacy concerns among Chinese social media users.

     
    – By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Bobby Fung
     

    A recent news report by Southern Metropolis Daily exposes how more and more real estate offices in China are working with facial recognition technologies to collect personal information about their prospective clients.

    This is not the first time that the widespread use of facial-recognition techniques in the real estate industry receives attention in Chinese media. In 2019, some blogs already raised concerns over the use of such techniques and the negative impact it could have on homebuyers.

    But why would the real estate industry benefit from buying expensive face recognition systems?

    One reason is that these AI techniques could earn those within the industry a lot of money while reducing time-consuming conflicts over commission fees.

    Using facial recognition within the real estate industry solves existing problems regarding the practice of commissions and splits in compensation, as the techniques can register when, where, and how often a certain client visited, and through which channels the eventual property purchase was made.

    Besides the fact that the registration of biometric information violates the privacy of visitors, it could also mean they, as homebuyers, are losing out on big money. First-time visitors, not yet registered by the smart facial recognition cameras, can get much higher discounts.

    The report by Southern Metropolis Daily claims that homebuyers could end up paying up to 300,000 yuan ($45,560) more when buying property if their face was previously recorded.

    This is, among others, because agencies make a distinction between homebuyers who first come to view a property following a real estate agent’s own marketing campaign (a ‘natural visitor’ 自然到访客户) and those who have come through an intermediary (‘渠道客户’). In the latter case, the company also has to pay a commission fee to the intermediary.

    This system has led to some potential homebuyers wearing helmets when visiting a real estate agency. Images of a certain ‘Brother Helmet’ (头盔哥) viewing property previously attracted attention online.

    One of the companies that is mentioned by Southern Metropolis Daily as providing this kind of smart camera systems to companies is the Shenzhen-based Myunke (Mingyuan Yunke 明源云客), an internet company focusing on the “intelligent transformation and upgrading” of real estate marketing.

    On Weibo, dozens of commenters suggest that the use of these techniques in China’s real estate industry is already widespread, with some sharing their own experiences as homebuyers and others saying: “I work in this industry, and it’s true.”

    “Where’s our privacy?! This is too scary!”, others write, with some saying that the root of the problem lies in China’s “overly lax privacy protection.”

    The ubiquity of commercial use of facial recognition has been attracting more attention recently amid rising privacy concerns.

    One example is the use of built-in smart cameras by digital advertisement billboards, which measure customers’ reactions to advertisements. These digital billboard record, for example, if people look at the advertisement, how long they stay interested, and if they are male or female.

    Earlier this week, a court in Hangzhou ordered a local wildlife park to delete the facial recognition data of one of its patrons, saying it was “unnecessary” and “lacked legitimacy.” An associate law professor at Zhejiang Sci-tech University named Guo Bing sued the safari park in 2019 for using mandatory facial recognition systems to register him and his wife as park visitors.

    As reported by Sixth Tone, Guo decided to file this lawsuit on the grounds that the park had violated China’s consumer rights protection law by collecting sensitive personal information without the permission of its patrons.

    In light of the heightened concerns around privacy and commercial use of facial recognition, a draft law to ban facial recognition systems in residential communities was recently submitted to the local legislation department in Hangzhou. This move may signal a stricter overview or even ban of mandatory collection of facial scans in residential areas.

    Whether or not the use of facial recognition systems in real estate sales will be curbed any time soon is unclear. Some experts have pointed out, however, that the necessity and legitimacy of employing such techniques – which only protect the interests of the company and not the interest nor rights of the clients – is highly questionable.

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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    China Insight

    Shandong Woman Dies after Suffering Abuse by In-Laws over Infertility

    Anger over Shandong abuse case: “Is this how the law protects women?!”

    Manya Koetse

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    The only photo of the victim on social media is a childhood photo.

    Just a month after the tragic story of a Chinese vlogger being killed by her husband triggered outrage on social media, another extreme domestic abuse case has gone trending on Weibo.

    This time, it concerns the story of the 22-year-old woman named Fang Yangyang (方洋洋) who lived in Fangzhuang village in Dezhou, Shandong Province. The woman passed away in 2019 after suffering prolonged abuse by her husband and in-laws. Chinese media report that the abuse was related to Fang’s infertility issues.

    Fang married her husband Zhang Bing (张丙) in November of 2016. It was an arranged marriage, with Zhang’s parents paying a bride price of 130,000 yuan (almost $20,000).

    When Fang did not get pregnant after marrying her husband, she started suffering severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her husband and in-laws, beginning in July of 2018. Zhang and his parents reportedly beat Fang with wooden rods, refused to let her eat, locked her up, and let her freeze outside in the cold.

    The in-law’s house on November 17, photo by Beijing News / Qiao Chi

    Fang, who weighed 180 pounds (80 kilograms) when she got married, only weighed 60 pounds (30 kilograms) in early 2019. Beijing News reports that Fang, malnourished and weak, died on January 31st 2019 after suffering another beating by her in-laws.

    The case received more attention on social media this week as the local Yucheng People’s Court (山东禹城法院) reviewed the case after an earlier verdict in January. The retrial is set to take place on November 27.

    In January 2020, the court sentenced Fang’s husband and his parents for the crime of abuse. The victim’s father-in-law, Zhang Jilin (张吉林), received three years in prison, her mother-in-law, Liu Lanying (刘兰英), got 26 months in prison, and her husband’s sentence was suspended with a three-year probation time, as reported by Sixth Tone and China Daily.

    The relatively light punishments triggered anger on Weibo, where the hashtag “Woman Suffers Abuse by In-Laws for Being Infertile and Dies” (#山东一女子因不孕遭婆家虐待致死#) has been trending for days, along with other similar hashtags (#女子因不孕被夫家虐待致死案重审#, #山东女子因不孕被虐待致死#).

    A statement issued by Yucheng People’s Court said the court gave the defendants lighter punishment because they were truthful about their crimes and, in advance, paid a voluntary compensation of 50,000 yuan ($7630). The verdict will now be withdrawn.

    In an interview with Southcn.com, Fang’s cousin stated the family had contacted police before when Fang’s in-laws would not allow the family to see her. The second time they contacted the police was after Fang had died.

    Sources close to the family state that Fang’s mother had been diagnosed with a mental condition, with Fang allegedly also showing signs of mental disability, although this has not been verified by official sources. There are also sources claiming that the father-in-law, Zhang Jilin, was a heavy drinker who would get aggressive when drunk.

    On social media, many people are outraged. “I just don’t understand it!”, one person writes: “It’s just because of societal pressure that this case is now going on retrial. But this is not justice!”

    Public anger about the case grew louder due to another case trending at the same time, in which a Shenzhen mother who beat her 12-year-old daughter to death received a ten-year prison sentence (#母亲失手打死12岁女儿获刑十年#).

    “This is unimaginable,” one Weibo user wrote: “Isn’t the idea of sentencing someone to actually punish them?!”

    “This pains me so much, is this the actual society we’re living in?”

    Besides the anger over China’s criminal justice system when it comes to domestic violence, there are also those who express disgust over the fact that the Zhang family apparently arranged a marriage for the sole purpose of producing offspring. “Are we still living in the Qing Dynasty?”

    Many of the comments online are similar to those that flooded social media after the death of Lamu: “Is this how the law protects women?!”

    We will report more on this story after November 27.

    By Manya Koetse

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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