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Tea, Opium and the Burning of the Old Summer Palace

In October 1860, at the culmination of the Second Opium War (1856-60), British and French troops looted and then burnt the imperial buildings in Yuanmingyuan (known to foreigners as the ‘Old Summer Palace’). Built by the early Qing emperors, Yuanmingyuan was their principal residence, a paradise on earth: beautiful, extravagant, utterly private and totally their own creation – unlike the Forbidden City that was inherited from the previous Ming dynasty. This widespread destruction of China’s most important complex of palaces, and the dispersal of the imperial art collection, is considered the greatest act of cultural vandalism in modern history. Over a million objects are estimated to have been looted from buildings in Yuanmingyuan, many of these are now scattered around the world, in private collections and public museums. As unlikely as it may seem, the Opium Wars were triggered by the British demand for Chinese tea that grew dramatically in the 19th century. To address the trade balance, the British sold opium to the Chinese in exchange.

About the speaker

Eileen Deeley, a passionate student of China’s 5000 years of history, culture and art, will relate the series of events in 19th century China: of unequal treaties, foreign concessions, extraterritoriality, colonialism, and the impact it has on China today. The Chinese government has designated the destruction of Yuanmingyuan as a symbol of national humiliation and as a reminder that China should never again let itself become weak, backward, and vulnerable to other countries. Efforts have been made to retrieve art objects looted from Yuanmingyuan and to restore the imperial garden to its former glory.


Thursday, 26 October 2023 at 19:00


Lecture Room, 4/Floor, The Siam Society


Members and Students (to undergraduate level) — Free of charge
Non-Members — THB 200

For more information, please contact

To book your place, please contact Khun Pinthip at 02 661 6470-3 ext 203 or

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