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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.

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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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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Wulfgul

    April 18, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    Might as well cover this article while you are at it.

    https://www.weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404362357362038276#_0

    • Admin

      April 19, 2019 at 11:52 am

      Wow, very interesting, thank you. Think we’ve written enough about this topic for now though. Thanks anyway!

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China Arts & Entertainment

Li Xuezheng Defies Online Celebrity ‘Blacklist,’ Says He’ll Help Zhang Zhehan File Lawsuit

China’s Association of Performing Arts has issued a blacklist, but Li Xuezheng questions their legal authority to do so.

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As an important voice within the industry, Li Xuezheng has spoken out against the recent blacklist of Chinese (online) performers issued by the China Association of Performing Arts. Li is willing to help one of the prominent names on the list, Chinese actor Zhang Zhehan, to file a lawsuit against the Association.

Li Xuezheng (李学政), Vice Chairman of the China TV Artists Association and Director of the Golden Shield Television Center, has published a video that has caught the attention of many on Weibo. In his video, Li questions the authority of China’s Association of Performing Arts (CAPA/中国演出行业协会), which released a black list of online celebrities earlier this week.

The list went trending on Weibo and contains 88 names of internet personalities who have been reported and registered for their supposedly bad behavior. The people on the list have either violated the law or their actions have allegedly negatively impacted society and public order (more about the list here).

The consequences for the people included in the list are potentially huge, since it not only bans livestreamers from continuing their work but also prohibits performers who were previously ‘canceled’ from entering China’s livestreaming industry to generate an income there. Through the list, CAPA gives an overview of people that should be boycotted and disciplined in the industry.

One of the people on the list is Zhang Zhehan, an actor who got caught up in a Chinese social media storm in August of 2021 over attending a wedding at a controversial Japanese shrine and taking pictures at Yasukuni, a shrine that is seen as representing Japanese militarism and aggression.

Zhang Zhehan got into trouble for posting photos of himself at Japanese shrines deemed historically controversial.

Although Zhang apologized, Zhang’s account and an affiliated work account were suspended by Weibo and the brand partnerships he was involved in were canceled.

Chinese celebrities who have fallen out of favor with authorities or audiences will sometimes turn to livestreaming. Singer Li Daimo (李代沫), for example, became a livestreamer after his successful singing career ended due to a drugs scandal. But now, even such an alternative career would no longer be possible for someone like Zhang, although he was never legally convicted for anything.

News of CAPA’s blacklist was widely published, also by People’s Daily, and the measures were presented as a way to tidy up the chaotic online entertainment industry and to create a “healthy and positive” internet environment.

In his video and other recent posts, Li Xuezheng wonders how the so-called ‘warning list’ was compiled, according to which criteria, by whom it was created, and whether or not the CAPA actually has the legal power to shut people out of China’s live streaming industry.

He also raises the issue that CAPA’s live streaming branch, that issued the blacklist, is actually a business entity; so how does it have the legal disciplinary powers to impose sanctions against Chinese online influencers and performers?

Li Xuezheng in his video.

Li’s video, posted on his Weibo account on November 24, has received over 90,000 likes and was shared over 8500 times at the time of writing.

“What I don’t understand,” one popular comment says: “- are these online influencers [on the list] all members of the Association? Can the Association also punish non-members? Does the authority of the Association cover all media? On what legal basis is their regulatory conduct based?”

The China Association of Performing Arts, founded in 1988, is a national-level organization that falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of China. It is a non-profit organization formed by performance operators and performers, according to its official website, which also states that members of the association include performance groups, performance venues and companies, ticketing companies, and more.

Since Li’s video was posted on November 24th, he received a lot of support from Chinese netizens but also faced some online censorship. Li himself posted screenshots showing that not all of his posts could be published.

It is noteworthy for someone like Li to speak out against CAPA’s blacklist. Li Xuezheng is a familiar face within the industry. Born in Shandong Province in 1965, Li has worked in China’s film and TV industry for a long time and has since built an impressive resume as a producer, supervisor, actor, and distributor. He has over a million followers on his Weibo account (@李学政).

On November 25th, Li added another post to his series of posts on the CAPA issue, saying that although his initial goal was just to make sure that CAPA sticks to the rules, he is now also prepared to help Zhang Zhehan in filing a lawsuit against the Association, since Zhang did not violate any laws in order for him to be ‘canceled’ like this. “I believe in the justice of the law,” Li writes.

Although Li received a lot of support on social media, there are also those who worry about Li himself: “You first take care of yourself,” some say, with others warning him: “Teacher Li, if you go on like this, you will lose your [Weibo] account tomorrow.”

Others are moved by Li’s courage: “I almost feel like crying reading your words.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone with this kind of overwhelming righteousness.”

For now, Li seems to be unstoppable in his goal to get to the bottom of this case; he seems to be determined to raise awareness within the industry on who is legally allowed to set the rules and who is not.

One popular comment says: “Looking at Teacher Li, I see he is fighting corruption and advocating honesty. Besides listening to the public’s opinion, I just hope law-based society will rule according to law.”

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.

©2021 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

Weibo Discusses: How Has the Covid Epidemic Changed Your Life?

China’s zero-covid approach does not come at zero cost.

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It has been nearly two years since China was hit with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Like most countries in the world, the epidemic has also had a profound impact on people’s lives in China.

Life in China was already ‘normalized’ in numerous ways in April of 2020, which is when Wuhan allowed people to leave the city again for the first time since the lockdown began on January 23 of that year. Most schools reopened, theatres started to open their doors again, temporary emergency hospitals closed their doors, and a big light show was organized in Wuhan to celebrate the end of the lockdown, which was yet to begin for many Western countries.

In comparison to other countries, China has seen very few Covid deaths – the official number is below 5000, while the US number of Covid19 deaths is now over 750,000. China’s low Covid19 death toll can be ascribed to the country’s commitment to a ‘Covid Zero’ strategy.

But this zero-tolerance covid approach does not come at zero cost; China’s fight against Covid19 is still ongoing and requires constant vigilance, lengthy local lockdowns, mass testing, strong contact tracing, strict quarantine measures, and an everyday public life that includes face masks, temperature checks, and QR health codes.

The impact of this strategy and the epidemic at large was the topic of one trending topic this week titled “How Big is the Difference in Your Life Before and After the Epidemic?” (#疫情前后的生活差别有多大#), a hashtag that drew in over 320 million views on social media platform Weibo.

The topic triggered thousands of comments from people sharing their thoughts and experiences, but the post that started the discussion (@人间投影仪) simply said:

I’d like to go back to a world where we don’t need to wear masks.”

The post came with various images comparing life before and after the Covid19 outbreak.

Playing in the snow (top), epidemic worker in the snow (below).

People without masks in the cinema, waving national flags (top), moviegoers wearing masks (below).

Singing on the subway (top), masked up on subway (below).

Playing in Disneyland (top), getting tested for Covid19 in Disneyland Shanghai (below).

Another commenter (@电联吗) replied to the Weibo post:

Looking at countries such as Thailand or South Korea, they’ve already re-opened, and I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. After all, it’s been over two years since Covid19, and there’s no trend of it weakening – it only seems to get stronger instead. I’ve become numb to the daily controls and prevention of this virus. I’m getting the feeling it’ll never go away. Will there ever come a day when other countries besides our own will lift all restrictions? To fully open? To just co-exist with the virus? And then, should we just continue to go on this way? Although our country is so safe now and our epidemic control is very timely, it still feels like people are living in fear. The slightest thing can cause a panic about the virus spreading. It can totally disrupt your plans. All activities can be delayed or canceled. All youthfulness, enthusiasm, perseverance, and dreams, can be stuck. But life is also very important. This perhaps is what is such a contradiction.

While many netizens agreed with the previous commenter, saying they are also struggling with anxiety and pressure that comes from the current Covid19 situation, there are also commenters who do not agree:

The freedom you see [in other countries] is not real. The opening up in many countries is simply because their economy otherwise can’t carry the weight, it’s not because they want to live with the virus. You think the epidemic is affecting your youth and passion, but I’d say youth and passion don’t only exist at a certain time, and it won’t be affected by an epidemic – otherwise, there wouldn’t be an awakening era. In times of an epidemic, people just do all they can to keep on living.

Another Weibo user from Ganzhou writes:

During the epidemic, it seems that when I don’t go out, there’s so much to do, yet when I go out, there doesn’t seem anything to do. At the time of the epidemic I wanted to go out so bad, I almost felt like exploding, and then when [measures] relaxed, I didn’t really feel like going out anymore. Before the epidemic, I liked to go out to eat a lot and whatever I wanted to eat I could have without doing anything. During the epidemic, I discovered I could fry chicken, make my own nuggets, and discovered skills I didn’t even know I had. Before, I wanted a two-month winter holiday, and then I got 4-6 month holiday I never could’ve imagined. I used to feel like not working, and then I felt so panicked without work and really wanted to work. Before, I never thought I could study at home and then discovered I could study till night. In the end, I still want to return to a world where we don’t need to wear masks.

Other commenters also look back on the pre-Covid19 with nostalgia:

I once thought 2019 was the most difficult year. But it was actually the happiest one of the last three years. Because there was no epidemic and we were free to go out as we pleased. We didn’t have to rigidly stick to our face masks, and there were no complicated processes to request a leave of absence.”

Then there are those who are longing for simple pleasures of the pre-covid era, such as this Weibo user (@柴柴鱼与柴):

I want to travel out of Shanghai and to other countries without any fear, I want to take off my mask in the theaters so that the performers can see when I am crying or laughing, or when I’m admiring them and cheering for them. I want to shout out during live performances and music festivals, I want  concerts to be able to be organized without issues, and I don’t want my twenty-something years to slip away in an era of masks and epidemic.”

Some also comment on how differently they experience the passing of time during the pandemic, like the original poster of the hashtag (@人间投影仪):

I have the feeling that since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, these past two years just went by in a flash. I don’t really have any memories that stick. But then when I look at photos from before covid19, it feels like a different life.”

But then there are also those who defend China’s zero-covid approach, saying (@风的节奏吹):

Everyone wants more freedom. If the world would’ve copied China’s homework, the epidemic would have ended long ago.

And (@种花家的兔子要嚣张):

Seeing so many people talking about (..) how others are opening up, are their countries populated as densely as our country is? With [us being] one-fifth of the world population, are you kidding me? If we’d open up, and you get sick and need to pay for your treatment, would you want that? Only if your country’s social benefits are so good, you’re able to be unreasonable on social media. Already now, there’s too much pressure on people at the basic level, do you even realize? If you say you feel envious, just move to another country and experience it for yourself, just don’t come back here spreading the virus!

One of the most popular comments in the top threads on this comment currently says:

If other countries had started to control it [the virus] like our country, we might not have to wear a mask now.”

Meanwhile, the hashtag “An Illustrated Handbook of the Maskless Era” is also getting many views on social media (#无口罩时代图鉴#), with people sharing photos and videos of the pre-covid19 times. Even ordinary everyday scenes from the subway in the pre-covid19 era are making people feel nostalgic: “I’m just cherishing the memory of those days.”

Read more about social trends relating to Covid19 in China here.

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.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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