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

BEIJING — 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 — 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 (1046—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.

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Xi'an in 1908 — 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.

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Xi'an central train station — 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.

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