Victor Hugo Condemning the Burning of the Winter Palace
Victor Hugo, 1802---1885, was a celebrated French literary giant. After the British and French invaders had burnt the Winter Palace in November, 1861, he wrote a reply to a lieutenant named Bartlette(?), denouncing indignantly the Allied atrocities. An extract of the letter follows.
“Sir, you ask me what I think of the expedition to China. You must feel that it was praiseworthy, well done. You are very polite, putting a high premium upon my feelings. In your opinion, the expedition, performed under the joint banner of Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon, was nothing short of a British-French glory. Therefore, you would like to know to what extent I appreciate this glory.”
Since you ask, I will answer as follows:
In a corner of the world there existed a man-made miracle --- the Winter Palace. Art has two sources: one, an ideal, whence has come European art; two, fancy, whence has issued Oriental art. The Winter Palace belongs in the art of fancy. The Winter Palace, indeed, was the crystalisation of all of the art that an almost superman race could have fancied. The Winter Palace was a hugescale prototype of fancy if fancy can have a prototype. If only you can imagine an ineffable architectural structure, like a palace in the moon, a fairyland, that is the Winter Palace. If you can imagine a treasure-island, a pool of human perceptive power, expressed in the concrete form of palaces and temples, that is the Winter Palace. It took two generations of manpower to create the Winter Palace, which subsequently went through improvement and perfection over several centuries. For whom was the Winter Palace built, after all? Eventually, for the people. Because as time passes by, all that the people has made remains in the possession of mankind. Great artists, poets, philosophers --- they all knew about the Winter Palace. Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet)once talked about it. Many people at different times compared the Winter Palace to the Parthenon, the Pyramids, the Arena, the Notre Dame. If they could not see the Winter Palace with their own eyes, they could dream about it --- as if in the gloaming they saw a breath-taking masterpiece of art as they had never known before --- as if there above the horizon of European civilization was towering the silhouette of Asian civilization.
Now, the miracle is no more! One day, two pirates broke into it. One of them went plundering; the other set every building and everything in it all abaze! Judging by what they did, we know that the victors could degenerate into robbers. The two of them fell to dividing between themselves the spoils. What meritorious feats they had done! What a heaven-sent bonanza! One stuffed his pockets full to overflowing; the other filled in his trunck chockfull. Then, hand in hand they made off, guffawing gloatingly. This episode reflects the history of the two brigands.
Standing before the tribunal of history is one brigand named France and the other named Great Britain. Against both I protest. Incidentally, I must thank you for giving me the opportunity to make this accusation. The rulers commit crimes but the ruled do not. The government becomes a robber, but the people will never.
France has gained a large portion of the spoils. Now, quite naively, she thinks herself the rightful owner of the property, and she is displaying the riches of the Winter Palace! I can only hope that there will come one day when France will disburden herself of the heavy load on her conscience and cleanse herself of the crime by returning to China all the spoils taken from the Winter Palace.
Sir, such is my eulogy of the expedition to China.
This English translation is from a Chinese version by Zheng Ruolin taking an excerpt from Hugo's Collection of Writings in Exile, appearing in an October 26, 1983 issue of the Beijing Evening News