The National Humiliation

posted in: Beijing | 1

Today I took advantage of the “golden season” weather (temperatures in the mid-60s, clear, with blue skies) and visited a site I’ve long wanted to see: Yuanming Yuan or the Old Summer Palace.  This was originally an additional palace and playground for the emperor.  In the 1750’s emperor Qianlong employed Jesuits living in Beijing to create a European-style palaces and gardens.  In 1860, British and French forces destroyed the palace while fighting the Second Opium War (basically, foreign powers wanted more access to China and forced China to open relationships with them using military might).  Ruins of the stone palaces and fountains remain, as the sign explained “reminding people of our national humiliation.”



I wasn’t sure what the atmosphere would be like in this area.  If, as the sign and other things I’ve read suggest, this is a reminder of national humiliation the American in me would expect a somewhat subdued atmosphere, like you might find at the Vietnam Memorial or World War II Memorial in Washington D.C.  That isn’t what I found, though.  I found loud crowds, people climbing on the ruins they had access to, and taking selfies and other family photos with the ruins as the backdrop.  I don’t know what they were all thinking, but it would be interesting to find out.  I did feel a bit reflective, sorry for the ways that westerners have often insisted that our way is the way and with a deep desire to not repeat the mistakes of our past.

It is always interesting to see what kind of reaction people have to me.  Compared to 11 years ago considerably fewer people have an outward reaction.  When I was in Beijing in 2003 we still heard people refer to us as “lao wai” (old outsider, an informal term for foreigner) quite frequently.  I don’t know if I have heard anyone call me “lao wai” in the past few weeks.  I did have one lady sit across from me on the bus, look me in the eyes and say “waiguo ren” (foreigner).  It was a statement of fact, probably not especially positive or negative.

Today, I took a small boat on some of the lakes in the park.  I happened to be on a boat with two Italian women who are working in China.  The Chinese people asked where we were from, and they said from Italy and the people smiled and nodded.  Then I said I was American and they got really excited “oh, America!”  I felt awkward, unsure why being from America was so much more exciting than being from Italy.  The women were very kind, but I also wonder how the interaction struck them.  I try hard to not live up to the ugly American stereotype, so this interaction felt especially awkward.


I found the architecture of this pavilion interesting because it is a mix of a Chinese roofline with Western columns below.

Beyond the ruins there is a lot of traditional Chinese park area.  That means it isn’t very wild and was full of people.  But it has its own beauty.  There were lots of lotus plants, and I would love to go back when they are blooming.

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