I sometimes wonder what it must feel like for the descendents of history’s not-so-reputable characters as they look back over the legacies their forebears have left. I’m not necessarily thinking about the likes of HM-the-Q who is distantly related to that thoroughly reprehensible fellow Henry VIII … I mean that is going back just a little too far.
But what of the likes of Sadam Hussein’s grandkids; or the future Gadhafi heirs; what of the distant offspring of Goebels or Himmler or Stalin? Come to that, what of 20-year-old James Andrew Charles Robert Bruce?
Let me explain. James A.C.R.B. is destined to become the 17th Earl of Kincardine once his father and grandfather have done the decent thing and popped their clogs. But not just the Earl of Kincardine; for his other more famous title will be the 13th Earl of Elgin.
Aha. I hear sounds of pennies falling into their designated brain slots. For as we all now remember, it was the infamous Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine who is still renowned for his removal of marble sculptures (commonly known as the Elgin Marbles) from the Parthenon in Athens.
In the process of removing the Marbles, he discovered that he was unable to remove them from the Acropolis without cutting them up into smaller pieces. During the controversy caused by the removal, Elgin was accused of being a dishonest and rapacious vandal, notably by English poet Lord Byron. In 1816 the Elgin marbles were deposited in the British Museum, where they remain to this day, much to the annoyance of more than a few whingeing Greeks.
Bad enough, you might think for poor young J.A.R.C.B. How he must have been bullied at school for the acts of his forbear.
But wait! As if that wasn’t burden enough, the next Lord Elgin - Sir James Bruce – seems to have been equally as horrid as his father. In fact the beastly little man, who in 1857 became High Commissioner to China, led the bombing of Canton and oversaw the end of the Second Opium War by signing the Treaties of Tianjin in June 1858. On 24 October 1860 Elgin also signed the Convention of Beijing, which stipulated that China was to cede part of the Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong to Britain.
Hurrah, I hear you shout, as you realise what a brilliant tactician Mr Elgin was in securing HK for the Brits. The problem is that it is no longer that for which he is most remembered, least of all in China, that is.
In October, 1860, not having received a Chinese surrender and (he claimed later) wishing to spare Beijing itself, this rotter ordered the complete destruction of the Yuan Ming Yuan (or Old Summer Palace) outside Beijing in retaliation for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of almost twenty European and Indian prisoners.
Known for its extensive gardens, buildings and works of art the "Garden of all Gardens" (万园之园), or Gardens of Perfect Brightness, to give it its proper name, was destroyed by 3,500 British and French troops over three days. It had been a complex of palaces and gardens eight kilometres northwest of the walls of Beijing and had been built during the 18th and early 19th centuries. It was where the emperors of the Qing Dynasty resided and handled government affairs.
Even to this day this act of wanton destruction is considered a disgraceful act of vandalism and something regarded in China as a symbol of foreign aggression and humiliation. Elgin and his troops also managed to loot many treasures from the Yuan Ming Yuan and took them to Britain; but unlike the marbles, most ended up in private collections.
These Imperial Gardens were actually made up of three gardens: the Garden of Perfect Brightness proper, the Garden of Eternal Spring (长春园), and the Elegant Spring Garden (绮春园); together they covered an area of 3.5 square kilometres (860 acres). They were almost 5 times the size of the Forbidden City, and 8 times the size of the Vatican City.
Being the culture vulture that I am renowned to be, I decide it is high time to trot off to the north western corner of Beijing to see what is left of this barbaric episode in history. Those clever planners in the Beijing Subway have had the bright idea to position a station, right by the entrance to the park, called Yuanmingyuan; so all I now have to do is meander the couple of hundred metres along the pavement – sorry, “walkstreet” – to get in.
The park has become the venue for a series of annual festivals, including the Spring Outing Festival, the Lotus Flower Festival and the Chrysanthemum Festival. From June to the end of August it is the turn of the Lotus flowers to be given pride of place….
and lest you should have difficulty making out a lotus bobbing on the surface of one of the many lakes, the park planners have made it a little easier for you….
… which I feel is a shame, as the lotus and water lilies on their own are spectacular enough for my simple taste.
Huge great swathes of lotus and water lilies grace the surface of almost every stretch of water in this Garden of Gardens, but still the powers that be have “enhanced” the view by planting plastic lotus flowers right in the foreground, though if you look carefully you can still see the real thing in the distance.
The day has already turned somewhat murky and the umbrellas have opened up in anticipation of the rain that is to come – though experience has now taught me that the Chinese have their umbrellas up most of the time anyway, for if there is no rain, there is bound to be a smattering of sunshine forcing its way through the smog, and horror of horrors no self respecting Chinese (or Asian for that matter) wants to get any browner than nature intended.
I head for an area in which red prayer tapes have been hung up by the feckless Chinese in hope of better things to come.
but now which way to go? That is the question. Luckily the park is filled with helpful maps and signposts, and if following everyone else’s bottoms is not clue enough, then I can always fall back on such useful guides.
As I meander further away from the first of the gardens, nature starts being allowed to come into its own. The lotus flowers and water lilies are allowed to impress by themselves without artificial help, as I head along the side of yet another lake.
Others, too exhausted to walk the 2 kms from one end of the trail to the other (or maybe because they too would like to see a lotus flower close up) take one of the many boats plying the waters.
Truly it is a splendid sight, with the large lily leaves in the foreground setting off to perfection the lotus flowers behind.
We are respectfully requested not to pick any flowers as we walk along the paths, but in truth I don’t actually see any for the picking (maybe some dastardly person ahead of me has ignored the signs?).
Of course, food is never more than a gnat’s whisker away from your average Chinese, and at the Yuan Ming Yuan the administration has made sure that its customers’ stomachs remain happy.
Finally I get to the far end of the park where the most striking ruins are found. Unlike the Chinese-style structures which were constructed of wood, the complex of Western-style buildings were made of stone. Their construction began in 1746, the 10th year of Emperor Qianlong' s reign. Situated near the northern wall of the Garden of Eternal Spring, these buildings were designed by the Jesuits Castiglione and Benoit. They included the Observatory and Hall of Tranquility, which were decorated with fine fountains and pools in the style of Versailles. In addition, their roofs and walls were embellished with glazed tiles in brilliant colours.
A few ruined stones of these European buildings still stand on the site today - reclaimed by the Chinese government in the 1980s and turned into a historical site.
I have to say though, that as a ruin, the stones are underwhelming in the extreme. Did I really walk 20 minutes through the drizzle to come and see this? I mean, apart from the muddy ground (surely they could have laid down some crazy paving or some tarmac) there isn’t even a plastic flower or someone in a gorilla suit to brighten the place up.
Feeling somewhat despondent, I plough on, only to come across China’s answer to Hampton Court – a maze through which the umbrella’d locals wander backwards and forwards trying to find the pagoda in the middle. I guess this is one occasion on which the taller Europeans have the advantage: OK, I admit it. I cheat and peer over the walls looking for the quickest route to take.
Feeling somewhat numbed by the now-driving rain I head on back towards the southern entrance, where my patience is rewarded by a plastic peacock …
… not to mention a butterfly which presumably lights up at night time…
I head on out to the confines of Subway Line 4 once again as I make my way back into town. It is obvious that for some the excitement has all been far too much. I think I know how they feel.