“Wonderful, amazing, fairylike, are the words that come uppermost in his mind as the full glories of that famous vista break for the first time on his astonished sight. For a few moments he is so lost in astonishment and absorbed in pleased wonder that he can do nothing but gaze upwards on the noble proportions of that vast central hall, in admiration of the cunning workmanship by which such common materials as mere glass and iron could be made to assume so exquisite and beautiful a shape…”
—The Illustrated Exhibitor guide to the Great Exhibition of 1851
“Mr. Ni Zhaoxing, whose personal assets are estimated at US$1.25 billion hopes to rebuild a splendid and glorious historical period.”
—“The Crystal Palace, From Ruin to Rebirth Thanks to a Chinese Billionaire”
The Great Exhibition of 1851, dreamt up by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, was a showcase for the miracles of modern British industry as well as well as an unmistakable signal of the global reach of Victorian Britain’s powerful empire. A foundational exhibition of the era and a model for exhibitions and museums down to the present, it displayed the awesome power to collect and represent as an aspect of economic and political might. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a gigantic structure of prefabricated iron and glass whose size and composition demonstrated the productive might of Britian’s factories and the pleasure and leisure of “window shopping” the collected wonders of the world—The Crystal Palace. In its heyday the Crystal Palace was visited by millions, and since meeting an inglorious end by fire in 1936, its absence has been a site of nostalgia for the glories of the golden age of industry and colonial empire.
So, the news that a Chinese real estate tycoon, Ni Zhaoxing (倪召兴) chairman of the Zong Rong Group (中融集团) and, according to the Hurun Rich List the 72nd richest person in China, has proposed rebuilding the Crystal Palace is a move packed with potential interpretations. It could be an example of a contemporary global manufacturing power co-opting a symbol of a past global power. It could be a commentary on Chinese claims to building global empire. Perhaps someone will read into the proposal another “lesson” about the decline of Western global economic hegemony and the rise of China. Or, It might be simply an example of a fabulously wealthy nouveau riche trying to connect to historical symbols of a powerful pedigree.
According to an article in the Shanghai Daily, Ni became familiar with the famous structure because his two daughters spent a decade studying in Britain. He had heard about the story and visited the site many times. His desire, as he described it, was to “restore the past glory of the Crystal Palace.”
In a report from Reuters, when Ni announced this past Thursday that he planned to spend $810 million dollars to rebuild the palace, he described the investment as, “…a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring its spirit back to life by recreating the Crystal Palace and restoring the park to its former glory.”
An official news release on Zong Rong’s corporate website echoes this phrasing, describing Ni’s desire to “rebuild the splendid glory of the past” (重建历史的辉煌).
Phrases that invoke the “spirit” (精神) or “splendid glory” (辉煌) of the past are commonplace in contemporary China—one often hears references to rebuilding all kinds of past “golden ages.” The national work of economic growth of the past few decades is, itself, often referenced in terms of rebuilding China with an eye to its glorious past before the humiliations of domination by the industrial power of the colonial Western powers.
It is for this reason that while reading about the rebuilding of the Crystal Palace I couldn’t help but think of those ruins in the capital of the British colonial empire to the great ruins of one of China’s own famous buildings the Old Summer Palace, the Yuanmingyuan (圆明园) in Beijing. If the London’s Crystal Palace of 1851 represented the glories of British power, the superiority of her production and presaged the visibility of consumption, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace just nine years later in 1860 by British soldiers during the Second Opium War represents the kind of military violence that made it possible. While not well known outside of China, the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan is a central narrative in Chinese national patriotic education.
Certainly as he considers rebuilding the “past glory” of the Crystal Palace, Ni Zhaoxing at some point must have paused to think about the Chinese side of the same historical period. I’m curious how a contemporary Chinese billionaire squares those two aspects of the past, even as he does his own part to reanimate it. What does it mean when a Chinese billionaire plans to rebuild a central symbol of an Empire that did its best to conquer and dominate China?