Travel Reference
In-Depth Information
great patron of the arts, as borne out by the numerous scrolls and paintings blotted with his
seals, indicating that he had viewed them - you'll see plenty in the Forbidden City. His fourth
son, the Emperor Yongzheng (1678-1735), ruled over what is considered one of the most
efficient administrations ever enjoyed by China; as well as cracking down on the corruption
that had plagued the rules of previous emperors, he formed the Grand Council, a high-level
body whose policies went on to shape much of Qing society. He was succeeded by Qian-
long (1711-99), whose reign saw China's frontiers greatly extended and the economy stim-
ulated by peace and prosperity. In 1750, the capital was perhaps at its zenith, the centre of
one of the strongest, wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. It was at this time
that the extraordinary SummerPalace was constructed. With two hundred pavilions, temples
and palaces, and immense artificial lakes and hills, it was the world's most remarkable royal
garden, and, along with the Forbidden City, a magnificent symbol of Chinese wealth and
power.
European expansionism and the First Opium War
In the late eighteenth century expansionist European nations were sniffing around Asia, look-
ing for financial opportunities. China's rulers, immensely rich and powerful and convinced of
their own superiority, had no wish for direct dealings with foreigners. When a British envoy,
LordMacartney , arrived in Chengde in 1793 to propose a political and commercial alliance
between King George III and the emperor, his mission was unsuccessful. This was partly be-
cause he refused to kowtow to the emperor, but also because the emperor totally rejected any
idea of allying with one whom he felt was a subordinate. Macartney was impressed by the
vast wealth and power of the Chinese court, but later wrote perceptively that the empire was
“like an old crazy first-rate man-of-war which its officers have contrived to keep afloat to
terrify by its appearance and bulk”.
Foiled in their attempts at official negotiations with the Qing court, the British decided to
take matters into their own hands and create a clandestine market in China for Western goods.
Instead of silver, they began to pay for tea and silk with opium , cheaply imported from India.
As the number of addicts escalated during the early nineteenth century, China's trade surplus
became a deficit as silver drained out of the country to pay for the drug. The emperor sus-
pended the traffic in 1840 by ordering the destruction of more than twenty thousand chests
of opium, an act that led to the outbreak of the First Opium War . This brought British and
French troops to the walls of the capital, and the Summer Palace was first looted then burned,
more or less to the ground, by the British.
Cixi and the Second Opium War
While the imperial court lived apart, within the gilded cage of the Forbidden City , condi-
tions in the capital's suburbs for the civilian population were starkly different. Kang Youwei,
a Cantonese visiting in 1895, described this dual world: “No matter where you look, the place
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