China 2.0

Antiquity Troves In China, When The State Owns Your Backyard

Statue of Xuanzang in Xian, China.
Statue of Xuanzang in Xian, China.
Xi Bo

BEIJING â€" Like others, as a child I used to daydream about taking a shovel and hunting through our yard for priceless treasure buried from ancient times. What I never would have imagined is that such an act can get you into serious trouble â€" even if it's done on your own property.

It's a lesson that Zhao, a 52-year-old farmer from China's ancient capital of Xi'an, is learning the hard way. In July 2014, when he was digging out some tree roots around his house, he happened to hit upon some ancient tombs. He and his brother eventually unearthed eight bronze artifacts. Not only were they unable to sell these valuable objects, but they were also eventually reported to the police.

Experts brought in to identify the objects determined that two of the items are in the second category of national cultural relics, while four others are in the third rank. The area is considered to fall within the national cultural heritage site of Fenghao, the ancient twin city and capital of the Western Zhou dynasty (1046â€"771 BC).

Zhao has since been convicted for illegal excavation of ancient tombs, and sentenced to 15 years or prison, in addition to being fined the equivalent of $15,800.

Not surprisingly, the case has sparked an uproar, as most citizens believe the verdict is unfair. The general sentiment of Internet commenters seems to be, "Why should relics dug up from your own yard belong to the state?"

But sadly, by the letter of the law, Zhao's conviction should stand. The Chinese criminal code is clear to say that excavating any ancient tomb or burial place defined as a Key National Cultural Heritage Protection Site is subject to a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment, or even the death penalty.

Most villages existed long before these national cultural heritage sites were discovered. Meanwhile, because it's so costly to relocate villages, not all local authorities have the financial resources and the courage to do so.

Xi'an in 1908 â€" Photo: John Shields

Double-edged sword

Chinese law further specifies that all cultural relics are the property of the state, whether they are underground, in bodies of water or on private property. In addition, all institutions, organizations and individuals have the obligation to protect cultural relics.

In other words, in China there is no right to casually dig up the earth in your own backyard. Those who happen to find something on their property are advised to take it to the police at once. It belongs to the government!

But as we've seen, these laws obviously fall short of convincing the Chinese public. Basic common sense tells us in a situation like this that the "finders, keepers" principle should be the order of the day.

There are, in fact, two distinct concepts of ownership that have emerged from the recent debate on this issue. The first is what ordinary citizens tend to believe: that found treasure is a "windfall." China's hot auction market and various television programs about how to identify valuable antiquities fuel this idea.

Xi'an central train station â€" Photo: David Castor

Meanwhile, it's clear that the true value of a cultural relic doesn't necessarily correspond to its market price. Archeologists believe cultural relics can help us understand the material and spiritual world of ancient times. They would argue that they therefore belong to all of humankind. Even private collections of historical, artistic and scientific value should be equally protected by the law, the argument goes.

Individuals are prohibited from casually digging up ancient sites because non-standard excavations can cause damage to cultural relics. And the procedure of unearthing is in itself very valuable, because it helps archaeologists identify the significance of objects. Once a site is destroyed, the loss is irreversible.

But all this doesn't mean that the current practice of heritage conservation shouldn't be reviewed. Reports in recent years about the private findings of Chinese cultural relics reveal that the punishment given to site robbers is severe, but that rewards given to those who relinquish objects to authorities in the proper way is incredibly stingy. For example, in 2014, a young man from Shaanxi handed over a bronze-edged sword of the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC) and was rewarded with the equivalent of $78. Where's the incentive to do the right thing?

China's current law asks every finder of a hidden treasure to behave like a saint. It's not practical. If China wants to successfully discourage the illegal excavation and smuggling of our cultural heritage, it needs a reasonable law that encourages finders to come forward.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!