1860: Before the Looting? The Yuanmingyuan in the French Illustrated Press

Commented by: Christine Howald

Material Description

This clipping from L’Illustration. Journal Universel features a drawing by Godefroy Durand (1832-1890+) after sketches by M. B.J. and M. Marchal. It was published on December 22, 1860 with the title Occupation du palais de Yuan-nineg-yuan par les troupes françaises (http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=illusfr).


This press clipping is the most well known visual source of the occupation of the Yuanmingyuan by Anglo-French forces in 1860. It does not represent anything of the violence of the event or the destruction of the palace that would follow but provides a rather festive scene where Westerners and Chinese seem to be easily cohabiting the space of the palace.

Historical Context

The Old Summer Palace northwest of Beijing was a huge garden complex covering an area of 3.5 square kilometres that contained several gardens: the Yuanmingyuan (the garden of perfect brightness), the Changchunyuan (the garden of eternal spring) and the Qichunyuan (the elegant spring garden). It had been the residence and administrative centre of the Chinese Emperors since the Qianlong Emperor (reign: 1735-1796). Within the three gardens were lakes, bridges, halls, pavilions, temples and palaces, among them European style buildings and fountains planned and designed by the Jesuit Guiseppe Castiglione between 1747 and 1766.  Thousands of artefacts were stored in the halls, along with unique copies of literary works.

From October 7th to 9th 1860, at the end of the Second Opium War (1856-1860), French, British and Indian army regiments sacked the Yuanmingyuan and the other gardens. The troops plundered the palace complex, destroyed it and burned it down a couple of days later. An official military loot (prize) had been legalized in advance with a convention between England and France. But what followed after the capturing of the palace was much more then the legalized taking of prize: it was an uncontrolled sacking of the whole palace. The number of looted objects remains unclear until today but it certainly reached several thousands. Part of the booty was brought back to Europe as official loot and was absorbed into the royal collections of Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoléon III. The other part, the personal loot of soldiers and officers, was displayed in military buildings, enriched family collections or was sold off through dealers or auctions, both in China (Peking and Hongkong) and Europe (Paris and London).

Image Description 

The image shows a Western palace crowded with people. We see a peaceful event attended by Westerners and Chinese. People are at leisure; different activities are taking place. Only the military uniforms of the Westerners suggests that the scene is perhaps not set in peaceful times.

In the foreground, we see the palace court with groups of dancers surrounded by a circle of spectators and musicians. On the right, people are playing boule or a similar game; the activity of the group on the left remains unclear.

In the middle ground, we can recognize a fountain with the famous bronze Zodiac heads still in their place –  and people (all army members?) promenading on the staircase leading to the palace, part of them regarding the activities taking place in the court.


This press clipping is known as THE visual source of the occupation and sacking of the Yuanmingyuan by Anglo-French forces. But taking into account that it has been published in a French journal end of December 1860 and that, by then, shipments to Europe took at least three months, we come to the conclusion that its source origins from a time prior to the days following October 7th. The sketches must have left Beijing at latest in late September.

On the image, loot cannot clearly be detected. The image is very sketchy; it is based on two sketches sent over from China, one made by an officer (M. B.J.) and the other by a M. Marchal. It is therefore a second hand engraving made by an artist who was not on site. The journal itself does not mention any loot. The image is embedded in a narrative of the capture of Beijing, on September 25th, two weeks before the sacking of the Yuanmingyuan.

The image could lead us to a re-interpretation of the days lying between the arrival of the French troops at the palace grounds and the looting by French and British forces. According to English sources, the French army arrived at the Yuanmingyuan before the British. Eben von Racknitz dates their arrival on the evening of the 6th. She also states that the French immediately started looting, most of the looting however took place after the arrival of the British between October 7th and 9th.

Following the narrative of L’Illustration, the French troops arrived much earlier at the Imperial palace grounds, at latest on September 25th, 1860 (date of the text in the journal). If we follow the clippings visual message, the French may have started their occupation by peacefully celebrating their victory with a feast, with the looting  only starting later on.

Cite this article as:
1860: Before the Looting? The Yuanmingyuan in the French Illustrated Press, commented by 
Christine Howald, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1860-before-the-looting-the-yuanmingyuan-in-the-french-illustrated-press, published 16/05/2018.


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