Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Conor O'Reilly writes

In the Summer Palace

In the Summer Palace,
The sun screams down
On my reddening brow,
Surrounded by more tourists.
As a stall owners heckle
Echoes down Suzhou Street,
Which bowed before
To that heraldic call
Of the Empress Dowager,
And to the crackle
Of the wood burning from
French and British sons.

My hollow footfall is another
On the sole polished marble
That will not recall me,
Like the books written of folk
Who trod here long before I.
Unless, of course, I try
to scar the walls permanently
like fire does for hunger,
In revenge for pain
Or in search of fame.

1 comment:

  1. The Summer Palace in the poem is a different structure than the one historically alluded to by Conor. Victor Hugo described the looting of the original Summer Palace as "Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain." In 1860, during the Second Opium War, as British and French expeditionary forces marched from the Chinese port of Tientsin to Beijing, Henry Loch and Harry Parkes went ahead of the main force to negotiate with representatives of the Qing dynasty under the de facto rule of Ci'an (popularly known in China as the East Empress Dowager but officially known posthumously as Empress Xiao Zhen Xian), After a day of talks at Tongzhou, they were taken prisoner and tortured. Though Parkes and Loch were released in a fortnight with 14 other survivors. 20 British, French and Indian captives died, their bodies barely recognizable. After the capital was seized, Lord Elgin, the British High Commissioner to China, retaliated by ordering the destruction of the Old Summer Palace.It took 3,500 British troops three days to set it ablaze. Only 13 buildings survived intact, most of them in remote areas or by the lakeside, although 16 garden scenes were spared. Looters took large quantities of porcelain but mostly ignored bronze vessels prized locally for cooking and burial in tombs, many of which dated back to the Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties and were up to 3,600 years old. Capt, Charles George Gordon described the event: "We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions.... You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass."Once the Old Summer Palace was reduced to ruins, a sign was raised in Chinese stating, "This is the reward for perfidy and cruelty."The burning of the palace was the last act of the war. During the 1880s, an adjacent imperial gardens, the Gardens of Clear Ripples (the present-day Summer Palace) was restored for the use of the new empress dowager, Cixi, as a new summer resort, albeit on a smaller scale. The old palace was again sacked in 1900 when the Eight-Nation Alliance (the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Germany, Austria, Japan, Italy, and the United States) occupied the city to end the boxer Rebellion, and further destruction occurred during the period before the Communist take-over and during the Cultural Revolution.


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