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Looking Beyond the Political in China

In this essay Vera Schwarcz, Director/Chair of the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies at Wesleyan
University and author of Place and Memory in the Singing Crane Garden, hopes that visitors to the Beijing Olympics will venture beyond the usual tourist sites.

THE ART (AND CHALLENGE) OF LOOKING BEYOND
THE POLITICAL IN CHINA

When the August 2008 Olympics open in Beijing, what will Westerners look for initially? Signs of the state of human rights in China, freedom for Tibet, the ongoing saga of the victims of the Siquan earthquake? Our desire to be compassionate (which can border on self-righteousness) may prevent us from seeing part of the physical and cultural landscape that most deeply colors China’s own sensitivity about the legacy of “national humiliation.” Unwittingly, we may blunder again into the negative and ill-understood legacy of nineteenth-century imperialism.

If, in contrast, visitors wander a bit off the tourist route, they
may happen upon a corner of northwest Beijing that tells a quiet,
important story of ruination, trauma, and ultimately the positive role
of Westerners in preserving Chinese cultural memory. Around the grounds
of the old Summer Palace (in the heart of today’s Beijing University,
not the newer palace with the marble boat and the temples of the late
nineteenth century), a visitor might hear Chinese guides speak about
the looting and burning that took place here in October 1860. The
narrative is likely to focus on rapacious imperialists who invaded the
emperor’s private pleasure palace and ravaged the treasures accumulated
over hundreds of years by the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Most Chinese
guides who roam this terrain full of broken marble arches will not
mention the British and French prisoners of war tortured to death in
the summer of 1860 in some of the princely gardens surrounding the old
Summer Palace, and they prefer not to dwell on Mao Zedong’s Red Guards,
who destroyed cultural artifacts as well as the lives of highly
educated intellectuals on the same terrain in the 1960s. It is safer
these days for the guides to dwell on Westerners as the source of
China’s “national humiliation,” without mentioning the complex causes
of the 1860 disaster or the names of Westerners who helped create
havens for Chinese aesthetics in the very midst of ruination. This
narrowly defined nationalism helps explain why ordinary Chinese are so
angry about Western threats to boycott the opening ceremonies of the
Beijing Olympics.

But what if we try to look beyond the political conflicts of the
past and of the present? Might it be possible to glimpse a cultural
history that provides grounds for a more meaningful understanding
between China and the West? This is what I found when I stumbled upon
the nearly forgotten Singing Crane Garden. Located on the periphery of
the old Summer Palace, this site invites us to wander off the beaten
path of political history.
In my book about this garden I was able to excavate layers of
historical memory that might surprise both Chinese and Western visitors
to the Beijing Olympics. On this site, Manchu princes of the nineteenth
century built places of refuge from the din of imperial politics, only
to find themselves witnesses to the burning and the looting of the old
Summer Palace. Their poems and essays might help today’s visitor to
understand better how gardens endure in the mind beyond the trauma of
injured national pride. On this site, too, the American architect Henry
K. Murphy revived traditional garden aesthetics in the midst of the
warlordism that ravaged China in the 1920s. Olympic visitors might
glimpse here how an outsider can cast new light on native cultural
traditions.

Today, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology stands on
the grounds once occupied by the old Singing Crane Garden. Is this an
insult to China’s memories of humiliation by Westerners in the
nineteenth century? I have argued that it is not. Instead, as my
research revealed, Dr. Sackler envisioned a space in Beijing that would
display China’s ancient treasures while enabling a new generation of
Chinese curators to learn the skills of preservation so precious after
the destructiveness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Slow-paced
perambulation of this one corner of northwest Beijing may be the best
way to overcome the narrowly political concerns that currently shadow
the Beijing Olympics.

What will we discover after all the rhetoric and the fireworks and
the mutual threats recede? Perhaps nothing more—or less—than garden
light on worn stones and words ample enough to contain the common
humanity of Chinese and Westerners alike.