A Tale of Two Elgins

2020.02.12 | By Vivian Jin

In the West, the name Elgin evokes the controversial removal of the eponymous Elgin Marbles, now housed in the British Museum; however, in China, cultural memory recalls a British general under whose supervision Anglo-French troops entered the Yuanming Yuan (“Garden of Perfect Brightness,” also known as the Old Summer Palace). Although the two acts cannot be attributed to the same individual—it was the seventh Lord of Elgin who removed the friezes from the Parthenon and his heir who is associated with the Yuanming Yuan—the Elgin name, nevertheless, is linked with two iconic monuments of human civilization.

Marble Gateway, Old Summer Palace (1917). Sidney D. Gamble (1890–1968).
Marble Gateway, Old Summer Palace (1917). Sidney D. Gamble (1890–1968). Image via Duke University Libraries.


As the Elgins are kin in name and legacy, so too are the Parthenon and the Yuanming Yuan in their symbolism: both rose from the landscape at the zenith of their respective civilizations to embody the pinnacle of artistic endeavor and finally remain in the form of marbles. While the Parthenon enjoys its global fame till today—being the “everlasting symbol of Ancient Greece and Western civilization,” as Mary Beard puts it (Beard 2010:118), the Yuanming Yuan is less fortunate—it has deviated further and further from public attention.

Ne Plus Ultra of Two Worlds

“The Old Summer Palace was to chimerical art what the Parthenon is to ideal art,” Victor Hugo noted in 1861 in an emotional letter to his friend Captain Butler, who was one of the leaders of Anglo-French forces along with Lord Elgin.The authenticity of Hugo’s paralleling of chimerical art and ideal art, and his appreciation of the Yuanming Yuan has occasioned many scholarly debates. Since Hugo never went to China himself and his sources of information about China remain dubious, many critics believe Hugo conjured an essentially imaginary Chinese palace by means of his highly poetic language. The Parthenon and the Yuanming Yuan, nonetheless, mark twin peaks of human art and civilization.

At the time of the Parthenon’s construction, begun in 447 BC and overseen by the artist Phidias, the Athenian Empire was at the apex of its power under Pericles. The Parthenon originally was a temple dedicated to Athena, the patron of Athens, and also served as the city treasury. The building itself is the apotheosis of ancient Greek architecture: it “came as near perfection as is humanly possibly, both in design and in meticulous execution” (Lawrence and Tomlinson 1996:57).

Ground was broken for the lesser-known Yuanming Yuan beginning in 1707. The Yuanming Yuan, located in the outskirts of Beijing, was chiefly a royal residence, where the imperial family and their entourage could seek respite on hot summer days, hence the nickname Summer Palace, not unlike the Palace of Versailles of Louis XIV. The Yuanming Yuan is not a single building like the Parthenon but a sprawl of palaces, temples, and gardens numbering in the hundreds. At its most resplendent, the compound was eight times larger than Vatican City. The Yuanming Yuan is regarded as the apogee of Chinese architecture and art. Hugo, in the same letter, described the Yuanming Yuan as “a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.”

To judge solely from appearances and architectural styles, both the Parthenon and the Yuanming Yuan are monuments of inclusion and openness; in the light of later events, that proved fundamentally ironic. Of course, the inclusion and openness embedded in the Parthenon and the Yuanming Yuan are, as almost always, not for everyone. To some degree, they are both products of the ego of the elites, their (delusions of) grandeur and the collective efforts of the unwilling imperial subjects.

The Parthenon, a Doric peripteral temple, incorporates friezes in Ionic style friezes and columns. The marriage of Doric and Ionic styles at the Parthenon is novel and bespeaks the inclusion of the Ionians and the unity of the Athenian Empire. However, if we further investigate the historical context of the construction, the Parthenon is never a symbol of equality and diversity: the Parthenon itself is the product of the will of Pericles to beautify and glorify his own city. The building process used tribute money exacted from countless unwilling imperial subjects, and the Athenian Empire at the time was in no way an open society.

A similar paradox attaches to the construction and appearance of the Yuanming Yuan. On the surface, the Yuanming Yuan subsumes a diverse collection of styles. After the Qianlong Emperor returned from his tour of southern China, he instructed his artists to reproduce the exquisite southern scenery to scale, not only as gardens and buildings, but also as designed landscapes, including ponds and forests. As Jesuit missionaries made their way into China beginning in the eighteenth century, the Yuanming Yuan also came to include a series of Western-style buildings and gardens designed and built by Giuseppe Castiglione and other European missionaries.

On the other hand, the Chinese Rites controversy, the conflict between Roman Catholic missionaries and traditional Chinese values and rituals, started as early as the beginning of the 17th century. During the conflicts, many of the European Jesuits were expelled. Those who remained in China, like Giuseppe Castiglione, were highly esteemed for their exotic artistic and technological skills. However, they were not allowed to preach Christianity, due to the anti- Christian attitude of the imperial court. Jesuit missionaries, who came to China to change other people’s beliefs, lost their right to be who they are. The vision of the Yuanming Yuan was to stand as a milestone in Chinese imperial history and to represent the entire world in miniature. The aim of the Yuanming Yuan, however, was never to display the equality of Eastern and Western culture. It aimed to showcase the power of the Qing dynasty and, to some extent, its ability to encompass and even surpass the Western world.

Like the Parthenon, the construction of the Yuanming Yuan employed the collective effort of numerous willing and unwilling imperial subjects. Unlike the Parthenon that can be seen and enjoyed by almost everyone—not many of whom, however, could actually go into the Parthenon—almost no one except the imperial family and their entourage could step foot into and enjoy the Yuanming Yuan.

Dual Ages of Destruction

Two generations of Lord Elgins, father and son, shaped the Parthenon and the Yuanming Yuan, changing how they look physically and the way people look at them. The troubling of the Parthenon and that of the Yuanming Yuan took place 50 years apart and for different reasons. Although the detailed motives, reasons, and processes relevant to the two destructions are the subject of much debate among scholars and politicians, nevertheless, the changes done to both monuments were momentous and irreversible.

Former Culture Minister of Greece Melina Mercouri once told The Times “more damage was done to the Parthenon in 1801–1802 than in the previous 2200 years” (The Times, January 15, 1983, as quoted in The Guardian, July 20, 2004). In 1798, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Earl of Elgin, was appointed as the British Ambassador to the Sublime Porte of Constantinople. Starting in 1801, Lord Elgin started to remove parts from the Parthenon. Although he was not the first to take objects from the Parthenon, Lord Elgin was responsible for some of the most transformative impacts on the Parthenon. Elgin removed half of the Parthenon’s marble decorations, including friezes, figures, and metopes, which were eventually displayed at the British Museum as the “Elgin Marbles.”

Fifty years later, during the Second Opium War, the Eighth Lord of Elgin and his French counterpart, the French ambassador Baron Gros, led the Anglo-French expedition to China. Lord Elgin ordered the entering of the Yuanming Yuan and eventually set it ablaze to avenge the kidnapping and torturing of some British vanguards, and also to pressure the embattled emperor even further. (French and British accounts are slightly different on the beginning of the event, and the outbreak is still debated among historians; for a British source commonly acknowledged to be reliable, see Loch in the bibliography.) In October 1860, the conflagration ordered by Lord Elgin destroyed nearly all of the wooden structures in the complex. Anglo-French troops and officials took away millions of treasures. “No one just then cared for gazing tranquilly at the works of art; each one was bent on acquiring what was most valuable” (Swinhoe 1861:301). Unfortunately, in 1900, forty years after Elgin’s visit to the Yuanming Yuan, more than 40,000 troops from the Eight-Nation Alliance (United States, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Japan, German Empire, Russia, Britain, and France) entered and camped in Beijing. Once again, soldiers opened the doors of the Yuanming Yuan, among other places, and started to remove relics. Relics taken by both the Anglo-French troops and the Eight-Nation Alliance are now spread over the world—UNESCO estimated in 2006 that about 1.6 million Chinese relics were in the possession of 47 museums worldwide, including one million from the Old Summer Palace alone (see bibliography)—and plenty have vanished altogether.

Looting of the Yuanming Yuan by Anglo-French forces. Godefroy Durand (1832–1896).
Looting of the Yuanming Yuan by Anglo-French forces. Godefroy Durand (1832–1896). In L’illustration, December 22, 1860, page 413. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


After years of disturbance, little of the palace complex of the Yuanming Yuan and its priceless artifacts have survived in place. In a cruel twist of irony, only some of the marble structures, designed by Jesuits and representative of “the West,” being fire-resistant, remain.

Intercultural Afterlife

In their damaged state, the Yuanming Yuan and the Parthenon both took on a new life in the European imagination. Both the Parthenon marbles and the Yuanming Yuan treasures were de-contextualized by the Elgins’ actions and were re-contextualized as museum specimens, with thick, new layers of meaning and identity. As museum pieces, the significance of artifacts from Yuanming Yuan was reversed, shifting from internal classicism to external exoticism, while the Parthenon marbles became part of Britain’s faded glory. The fate of the two monuments seems to depend on the degree of compatibility between the exotic objects and British and European values.

Shortly after the seventh Lord Elgin removed the marbles from the Parthenon, some Britons began to condemn his act. One of the most famous criticisms is the inscription on the Pandroseion, mourning the loss of the Parthenon and criticizing the barbarism of Elgin: Quod non fecerunt Goti, hoc fecerunt Scoti (what the Goths did not do, the Scots did). Nevertheless, the British parliament resolved to purchase the Elgin marbles since “no country can be better adapted than our own to afford an honorable asylum, to these monuments of the school of Phidias, and of the administration of Pericles” (House of Commons Select Committee on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles 1816:15).

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868). Lawrence Alma-Talmeda (1836–1912).
Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends (1868). Lawrence Alma-Talmeda (1836–1912). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


This 1868 painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts Phidias, the architect of the Parthenon, showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends. Although the title and the clothing of the figures suggests Alma-Tadema drew inspiration from the ancient Greeks, whom he sought to represent in his painting, the perspective of the artist and viewers seems to be modeled on 19th century private viewings in British galleries—viewers standing in front of the frieze and the artist facing towards viewers and perhaps communicating with them. Indeed, the work is painted in the style of Romanticism, and the image of Phidias and other viewers was envisioned by the late Victorian mindset of Alma-Tadema. Along with Alma-Tadema, many other Britons saw themselves as the inheritors of the Periclean tradition and the Athenian values manifest in the Parthenon. Thanks to the hazy memory of time, the Elgin Marbles are now regarded as the crown jewel of the British Museum and have been coopted as a part of British cultural memory.

Similar moral tension undergirded the reception of the Yuanming Yuan. Condemnation of the destruction of the Yuanming Yuan, however, differed from criticism of the Elgin Marbles. While the latter centered around the legitimacy of Elgin’s heist and the question of ownership, criticism of the looting of the Yuanming Yuan concerns the weighing of cultural and artistic importance against political and economic advantage, echoing present-day debates such as that surrounding the Islamic State’s destruction of cultural heritage sites during the Syrian Civil War. While orientalism, particularly the aesthetic of Chinoiserie, was widespread in Europe, the objects from the Yuanming Yuan were of great, albeit distorted, value to the court and art markets. Millions of pieces of porcelain and of lacquer (and even a Pekingese dog, later dedicated to Queen Victoria with the name Looty) were hauled back to Britain. However, some of the imperial treasures and sublime Chinese classical arts, especially ones such as literati paintings and pieces of calligraphy that require thorough knowledge of Chinese culture and aesthetics to appreciate, are relatively rare in museums and art markets. Some of Lord Elgin’s Anglo-French troops who made selections from among the Yuanming Yuan treasures were familiar with Chinoiserie, and others knew nothing about China. The survival of the arts in the culmination of Chinese classicism lay in the hands of foreign men.

Since the destruction done by Elgin, the Parthenon remains a symbol of Greek identity. Greece has looked to the ruins of its distant past to celebrate its future.The ongoing debate regarding the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles is not exclusive to the academic world. The quandary also prompts Greeks and Britons to reevaluate their own cultural identities. The remains of the Yuanming Yuan, however, are afforded much less attention. In China, the palace nearly lost all of its former significance, with most of its precious objects lost in the ether of the art market or sequestered in the French and British royal collections. As Geremie R. Barmé puts it: “perhaps it is also because all of this horror and its attendant shame is too fresh in memory, too painfully recent in time, for people to feel that they can afford to indulge in either sentiment or nostalgia” (Bermé 1996:155). Ironically, at its grandest, the Yuanming Yuan, the most exquisite palace complex known to every Chinese, had never been seen by common people, rather virtually only been visited by the imperial family. Today, almost all that remains of the vast compound of the Yuanming Yuan, like the Parthenon, is a set of marbles representing Western culture.



I am indebted to Verity Platt and Michael Fontaine, who shaped the way I see and commented on early versions of this piece.



Barmé, Geremie. 1996. The Garden of Perfect Brightness: A Life in Ruins. Canberra.

Beard, Mary. 2010. Parthenon. London.

King, Dorothy. “Elgin Marbles: fact or fiction?” The Guardian. July 20, 2004. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2004/jul/21/highereducation.parthenon. On Melina Mercouri’s reaction to the Elgin Marbles, see also Valentine Low, “How Mercouri tackled Britain in 1983 battle of the Marbles,” The Times UK, July 03, 2015. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/how-mercouri-tackled-britain-in-1983-battle-of-the-marbles-mq3ssxzfr9k.

Hugo, Victor. 1880. “L’expédition de Chine: Lettre au Capitaine Butler. Hauteville House, 25 novembre 1861.” In Oeuvres complètes de Victor Hugo: Actes et paroles pendant l’exile. Paris. https://fr.wikisource.org/wiki/Actes_et_paroles/Pendant_l’exil/1861.

Lawrence, A. W., and R. A. Tomlinson. 1996. Greek Architecture. 5th ed. Pelican History of Art. New Haven, CT.

Loch, Henry Brougham Lord. 1900. Personal Narrative of Occurrences during Lord Elgin’s Second Embassy to China in 1860. 3rd ed. London. Orig. pub. 1868.

MIT Visualizing Cultures Project. “The Garden of Perfect Brightness.” https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/garden_perfect_brightness/index.html. See especially the engravings of the European pavilions: https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/garden_perfect_brightness_02/ymy2_essay02.html.

Swinhoe, Robert. 1861. Narrative of the North China Campaign of 1860. London.

UNESCO. “Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing” (website). https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/880.

United Kingdom House of Commons Select Committee on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles. 1816.Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Earl of Elgin’s Collection of Sculptured Marbles; &c. London.

Wong, Young-tsu. 2001. A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan. Honolulu.