January 10, 2021

How one little Pekingese dog came to symbolise British imperialism’s big messy legacy

By haziqbinarif


Beijing’s Old Summer Palace burns as British soldiers seek retribution.

They’re seeking reward too — looting silks, vases, paintings … and something else. A dog.

A dog that is destined to swap this palace for another.

Queen Victoria is about to get a new pet.

It’s given the name Looty.

This little Pekingese, taken after a series of brutal and destructive acts, will come to symbolise British imperialism and its long, complicated legacy.

Brutality and revenge

For the Qing dynasty Yuanmingyuan, the ‘garden of perfect brightness’, wasn’t just a palace — it was a city.

All told, its grounds stretched the size of 650 football fields. Its marble palaces, temples, and towers were adorned with jade, bronze and precious stones. Peacocks strolled the gardens.

Qinghua Guo, an architectural historian at Melbourne University, says the original designs, and paintings of the palace, give us an idea of its grandeur.

“The style is nature, it’s beauty, it’s everything,” she says.

“The Forbidden City is man-made, it’s rigid, formal, symmetrical. The Old Summer Palace was much, much richer and more beautiful.”

But the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s would see that paradise reduced to rubble.

These were wars over drugs, money and power.

Wars over who controlled the flow of lucrative opium, who had to pay whom for tariffs and trade, and who really held sovereignty over China.

Writer and broadcaster Chris Bowlby says the Chinese weren’t a great military power.

“Initially, it does seem a very one-sided affair. The Brits have got a new kind of gun called the Armstrong gun, far more powerful than anything that’d been seen before.”

His ancestor Thomas Bowlby travelled with the British army as a journalist for The Times.

“He talks about [this gun] in a mixture of awe, but also almost horror at the destruction which this inflicts on the various Chinese garrisons who stand in its way.”

When joint French-British forces reach Beijing, the looting of the Summer Palace begins.

Artefacts, vases, silks and paintings are stolen — at the time it’s a routine way to fund the war and for soldiers and officers to get a little extra pay.

Then comes the suggestion the Chinese are ready to surrender. A British party sets out, and Bowlby joins them.

But instead of witnessing history he and the soldiers are imprisoned and tortured — their mangled remains delivered back to the British.

“I think it’s humiliating,” Chris says.

“I think it’s brutal. A different kind of brutality to the kind of brutality that had been inflicted by British artillery on Chinese.

“But nonetheless, you can sense how shocking this must have been … in what until then appeared like a kind of triumphal procession towards the Chinese capital.”

The British decide retribution is needed. Their focus: the Old Summer Palace.

“Think about it, if I want to hurt you then I destroy something you really love,” Professor Guo says.

It’s said the fire they started raged for three days and nights.

What’s left — to this day — are ruins.

“I visit the Old Summer Palace and the Forbidden City Each time I go back to Beijing and I try to calm down, I try to reason. I try to be neutral. But I still feel very sad,” Professor Guo says.

‘The British had this God-given right to take stuff’

Cartoon illustration of Queen Victoria dressed in black standing next to a small dog who sits on an ornate chair.
Queen Victoria was given Looty in 1861.(ABC RN: Elyce Phillips)

There are different accounts of how the British got their hands on Looty and a handful of other Pekingese.

“The story is that in the palace there were found these little dogs that nobody really saw before because they were a very secret, personal part of the emperor’s empresses and the eunuchs of the palace and so on,” design historian Sarah Cheang says

Dr Cheang is fascinated by why to this day, stately homes in Britain are filled with Chinese things.

She says there’s a strong myth that Pekingese are ‘special palace dogs’.

“They become imperial loot. They become these treasures that formerly belonged to the emperor. Hence the decision to call this one dog that’s gifted to Queen Victoria, Looty,” she says.

“It says a lot about how acceptable it was to loot. This was normal. The British had this God-given right to go out into the world and take stuff.”

Hilary Du Crow has been breeding Pekingese dogs around the world since she was 10.

She says the Queen having the dog was a big endorsement.

“The fact that the Queen had one is clearly an influence on why it became such a big deal,” she says.

In the decades that followed other Pekingese were brought over.

“The dogs that you have today were descended from ones that came out later, like about 15 years later,” she says.

By 1901 a breeding population was established, and the dogs became very fashionable and very popular.

An illustration of a cute pekingese dog smiling. It has long mop-like groomed hair.
Dr Cheang says while the dogs can look funny, they represent a serious part of history.(ABC RN: Elyce Phillips)

Dr Cheang says the popularity of the Pekingese reveals a lot about how the British feel about an imagined Far East.

“I think that the connection to the exotic is part of its appeal,” she says.

“They are supposed to be like little miniature Chinese emperors sitting on cushions.

“The breeders are trying to breed them to look a certain way and create what they see as a Chinese object.”

An attempt to forge a connection with a palace that was razed to the ground.

“It’s an important dynamic within imperialism that you have a constant nostalgia for the thing that you’re in the act of destroying,” Dr Cheang says.

“At the same time as you disrupt local cultures and seek to destroy them, often in order to dominate, you are mourning the loss of those cultures and trying to act in ways to preserve them.”

‘Not all a laughing matter’

Dr Cheang is used to people laughing when she shows them pictures of Pekingese — she readily admits their appearance can be funny.

But she hopes people remember that these dogs represent some pretty serious parts of history.

“It’s important to not just to laugh at these dogs, but to take seriously what was done in terms of violence, in terms of finding yet another way in which to assert ideas about British superiority,” she says.

“These dogs were actually important tools of British imperialism.

“It’s not all a laughing matter.”

The Old Summer Palace has other names these days “China’s national ruin”, its “ground zero”.

Hear how Beijing’s rulers have ensured its story has become intertwined with China’s national identity on Stuff the British Stole. You can listen now on ABC Listen, or wherever you get podcasts.

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