Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Art, Politics and the Second Opium War

The "Year of France in China", fresh from having brought an amazing collection of Impressionist Art to these shores, has now unveiled a new exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of Art entitled, "French Visions of China". It is an intriguing collection of engravings, paintings and sketches executed by French artists visiting or living in China during the 18th and 19th centuries. There are also a number of superb examples of 'chinoiserie' wares so popular in France during the 18th century, deliberately exoticising the mysterious East.

In case you are unaware, the "Year of France in China" is a concerted attempt by France to ingratiate itself with the world's rising power, China. As such, the entire focus of this no-expenses-spared exchange is at heart, quite political. That certainly comes through in this most recent exhibit, which very much only shows French art that portrays China through rose-colored lenses, and also harmonious Sino-French relations. The exhibit starts with the dispatch of French Jesuits to the Qing court, not mentioning that the most important Jesuits were in fact of other nationalities.

By far the largest exhibit in the collection is a series of 16 engravings designed by French artists for the Emperor Qianlong. They describe in detail the Emperor Qianlong's victories over the Uighur Turks. While not incredibly remarkable from an aesthetic standpoint, their inclusion not only trumpets the favor in which French artists were held by the Emperor, but also the tacit acceptance of China's policies with its Uighur population today.

What is even more remarkable is that nowhere except in the most passing statement is it mentioned that French troops joined forces with the British in the Second Opium War. In the exhibit, it appears that the blame for the sack of the Summer Palace during that conflict rests entirely with the British, as was their participation in that conflict. One reads in the caption for a painting that the French artist was accompanying Lord Elgin, commander of British Forces in China, but nowhere is it said that thousands of French troops had come along for the ride as well.

On this day, August 3rd, the anniversary of the Pei Tang landing in 1860 by the joint British-French expeditionary forces that eventually led to the Imperial surrender of the Taku forts and of Beijing, it is important not to let history get distorted out of all proportion. I understand fully that history must be exploited for nationalistic purposes, but it seems a case of the Emperor's new clothes when history is whitewashed so completely that it ceases to hold any lessons for future generations. What of the French role in the sack of the Yuan Ming Yuan, or of their attack on China in 1884? Burnish, exaggerate, do what you must to promote friendly relations, but it smacks a little of Chirac's antics prior to the Olympics decision when the Second Opium War is made out to seem almost entirely the fault of the British and their commander...

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