The last days of the empire

We walked through the Summer Palace in Beijing on a very hot day. The leafy roads were protected from the hot sun. The cooling breeze from the Kunming lake gave respite from the heat. In spite of the crush of people you saw immediately on entering palace gates, the rest of the huge grounds did not seem crowded. We walked through the corridors of the palace of the Empress Dowager Longyu. She was married to the emperor when Chinese empire was already crumbling. She brought the two thousand year history of the Middle Kingdom to an end by signing the instrument of abdication in 1912 on behalf of the child emperor Puyi. China burned through the next century. It is only now that you see a new society being born.

If you know the outlines of the history of those troubled times you feel odd walking through these peaceful leafy corridors. The country was already torn apart when these halls were being refurbished for the Emperor’s consort. The European powers had burned and looted the Summer Palace twice, the Boxer rebellion had occupied it, China had lost battles to Japan. But the opulence of the palace of the last empress did not reflect this. You walk through the corridors as an exquisitely painted cat turns its back on you in contented peace from its place in the rafters, forever seeking mice in the gables. Chinese tourists walk past, cameras clicking on simulated auto.