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Western Plunders Of Antiquities? Challenging The New Chinese Uproar

There is no doubt that the old museums in Europe and America bear deep imprints of the colonial era; in a mirror image, "protecting treasures" has become a transcendental reference for the new China.

Western Plunders Of Antiquities? Challenging The New Chinese Uproar
AI-generated image/Worldcrunch
You Peng

In mid-August, the British Museum reported a suspected burglary.

A batch of gold jewelry, precious stones, semi-precious stones and glass from the 15th century B.C. to the 19th century A.D., not on public display and used for scholarly research, were said to have been stolen from the museum. The suspected burglar? The museum's curator of Greek artifacts. In a more explosive revelation, the director of the museum, Hartwig Fischer, confirmed that some 2,000 items had been lost from the museum's coffers over the past 10 years. He resigned at the end of August.

The incidents made ripples in China. The Global Times published an editorial on August 27 titled "Please return Chinese cultural relics to the British Museum free of charge," stating that "Most of them were looted or stolen when Britain took advantage of people's danger, robbed them while they were on fire, or even directly engineered disasters for China."

In September, a Chinese social media user produced a web series called "Escape from the British Museum'' — it became a hit. The show tells the story of a Chinese "jade pot" in the British Museum's collection that transforms into a young woman who wants to return to China.

Ironically, the jade pot is a contemporary artifact (made in 2011) and was given to the British Museum by its creator, Yu Ting, a jade carver from Suzhou.

Although the director of "Escape from the British Museum" later said that he was aware of the pot's origins, not only did he not clarify this in the series, he in fact reinforced the impression that it was a lost artifact through dialogues such as "I've been wandering around for a long time, and I'm lost." Judging from the message boards, that's what the majority of viewers believed as well.

So, is this highly simplified impression true? What does contemporary Chinese public opinion make of it? And how should the colonial history of museums be viewed critically?

Colonial plunder — with a catch

Although the history of museums can be traced back to the ancient Greek temple of the Muses (Museion, also the etymology of the word museum), in its modern sense the birth of the museum coincides with the rise of capitalism.

During the Renaissance, art and other specialties from "exotic" countries were highly sought after. Aristocrats and scholars competed to build their own cabinet of curiosities, and even went as far as tearing down ancient Greco-Roman sculptures and columns in order to decorate their buildings. This trend continued for hundreds of years, as evidenced by the British Museum's "Elgin Marbles," which were removed from the Parthenon sculptures by Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, in 1801.

After the Enlightenment in Britain in the late 17th century, many of these aristocrats and scholars began to donate their own collections to publicly accessible institutions, hoping to create "encyclopedic" exhibitions.

Can China now ask for the return of the cultural relics without compensation?

During the second half of the 18th century, the British Museum and the Louvre Museum came into being. The former was founded with a donation of more than 70,000 items to the British Crown by the 17th-century English collector Hans Sloane, while the latter was transformed from a palace into a museum after the French Revolution, its collection enriched by Napoleon's plundering of various countries. The fundamental source of most of the "Oriental" collections is colonial expansion, and this theme runs through almost all of the old European and American museums.

Chinese artifacts were often thought to have made their way to these museums via colonialism. However, in theory, most of these collections were legally acquired in China. For example, in 1900, the Swedish archaeological explorer Sven Hedin discovered the ancient city of Loulan, and the excavated artifacts were brought back to the Swedish Oriental Museum. In 1908, French explorer Paul Pelliot, who lived in the Mogao Caves with a Taoist priest, purchased a large number of ancient Dunhuang scrolls, which are now in the French National Library. And in 1921, Swedish archaeologist Johan Gunnar Andersson discovered the Yangshao site, and, with the approval of the then Chinese government, brought 30,000 pieces of colored pottery back to the Oriental Museum in Sweden. None of these actions violated the law of the day.

Quid pro quo?

We can certainly use the familiar mainstream critique that these explorers, scholars, and missionaries took advantage of a weak and impoverished China. However, it is undeniable that at the time, cultural relics had greater value in Europe and the United States than in China.

For instance, the United States opened the first Chinese Museum in Philadelphia in 1838. In 1870, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was built, and it would go on to become one of the most important collections of Asian art in the United States. Another landmark institution, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, established the Department of Asian Art in 1915.

In 1909, the United States Congress even enacted the "Payne Aldrich Tariff Act," which granted import tax exemption to works of art over 100 years old. The vast majority of Chinese people during this period were still struggling with poverty and hunger. Aristocrats often sold their family assets and did not understand the value of cultural relics. In 1911, for example, calligraphy and paintings from the palace of King Gong were sold to the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in order to save the Qing dynasty.

Thirty years after the founding of the Communist Party of China, the government had already "cleaned the house before inviting guests" (one of the three major foreign policies of the party in their early period). They were also in urgent need of foreign exchange, so state-run cultural relics stores gained importance.

With China’s economy growing substantially, can it now ask for the return of the cultural relics without compensation? What if a foreigner uses their own professional knowledge to discover a relic?

Photo of Intaglio in blue glass, one the missing items from the British Museum

Intaglio in blue glass, one the missing items from the British Museum

Official website

Hypocritical exhibition

An interesting case for comparison dates back to 1906, when five ministers sent by the Qing court to study constitutionalism returned from Europe, stopping over in Cairo for a day. One of them, Duanfang, a governor who was a collector of gold and stone, purchased more than 40 stone tablets and three wooden coffins at the local antique store at a modest price. These objects are now in the National Museum of China. If Europe and the United States are expected to return the cultural relics purchased from the Chinese in the late Qing Dynasty, by the exact same logic, shouldn’t China also return this haul of Egyptian relics?

It is difficult to draw a straight line from the relics being "robbed" to being (legitimately) purchased.

The state has given us a clear answer. In 2019, to coincide with the Asian Civilization Dialogue Conference held in Beijing, China's Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage hosted the "Great Beauty of Asia" exhibition, which displayed cultural relics from Asian countries, with an additional section on Greece and Egypt.

According to information available with this author, the initial plan was to display Duanfang's old collection. However, the organizers rejected this plan because they felt there was a risk that the Egyptian government would try to recover the artifacts after the exhibition. It is an incredible and vivid illustration of hypocriticism.

"Robbed" or acquired in good faith?

In 1914, the Chinese government issued a decree restricting the export of antiquities, meaning that China finally had a framework for protecting cultural relics. But in the era of national chaos, these legal provisions were often poorly enforced. Some still stole relics and antiques from historical sites and sold them all over the world. It didn't help that the regime in China was under constant flux — in 1949 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China abolished the laws.

The current Protection of Cultural Relics Law stipulates that the ownership of all relics rests with the state, so only the state, the government or government-authorized organizations are authorized to file a lawsuit for the recovery of a relic. However, if they are really the plaintiffs, the Chinese government will be regarded as waiving state immunity and have to bear the risk of losing the lawsuit, which could undermine national dignity. In other words, the Protection of Cultural Relics Law through the form of litigation to recover lost cultural relics contains inherent contradictions.

As for international law, UNESCO adopted the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property in 1970, and the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law adopted the Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects in 1995, to which China acceded in 1989 and 1997, respectively. However, the Convention is not retroactive and has a 75-year statute of limitations. So China's choice to accede to it also means that it has given up on the recovery of artifacts lost from the Yuanmingyuan and the Cangjingkong prior to 1923.

Unlike China's public museums, many foreign museums are self-financing consortiums with a great deal of autonomy. The government has no right to intervene in their management, nor does it have the right to question the flow of cultural relics into these museums. What's more, with the relics having changed hands a long time ago, it is difficult to draw a straight line from them being "robbed" to being (legitimately) purchased by collectors. For the British Museum, for example, buying artifacts or accepting them as donations is considered legal and a "good faith acquisition" — protected by the Convention. It is virtually impossible to challenge and overturn this arrangement.

The Dragon from Shaolin, 1996


When nationalism takes over ...

It's worth repeating that the old museums of Europe and the United States doubtless bear the imprint of the colonial era, both in terms of their "Oriental" sources and in terms of their traditional "encyclopedic" exhibition structure. Many explorers from a century or two ago, now treated as archaeological pioneers, indeed appropriated artifacts from other countries.

This history has had a huge impact on both Eastern and Western ideologies. In the era of steamships crossing the ocean, Europe and the United States first popularized books like Treasure Island, King Solomon's Treasure, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Tintin, and then a series of Orientalist treasure-hunting movies, such as The Mask of Fu Manchu, in which Sir Baden searches for the tomb of Genghis Khan. Even in the 1980s and 90s, the box office success of the Raiders of the Lost Ark series demonstrated the transcendental popularity of the "treasure hunt" motif.

For the Chinese, these relics are sacred embodiments of the national spirit and emotion

In a mirror image, "protecting the treasure" has become a transcendental trope in China. Film and television works such as The Fishing Boy, The Mysterious Buddha, and The Dragon in Shaolin are based on the memory of colonization and the project of uniting the nation by opposing the "other."

In the eyes of foreigners, cultural relics are collectibles that ought to circulate freely in the market and appreciate in value. For the Chinese, these relics are sacred embodiments of the national spirit and emotion and must belong to the state. China's domestic archaeology is considered "official tomb raiding," validated by national laws and regulations. But nationalism takes over when faced with a "foreign enemy" like the British Museum.

Nationalism generally stems from one of two sources — a sense of oppression by external forces, as claimed by neo-Nazis, or a sense of superiority, as with white Americans. China's nationalism in the modern sense clearly originated from the first, i.e., the historical intergenerational trauma inflicted by Western powers since the Opium War. Displaced cultural relics have become a nationalist and populist Macguffin in this context, eclipsing any legal or academic discussion.

... and emotion beats common sense

As China pursues the homecoming of over 500,000 lost artifacts, it is pertinent to note that contrary to popular belief, many museums are not all that resistant to returning cultural relics, even though the process remains legally complicated, often requiring the governments involved to resort to mediation to resolve disputes. For example, in 1987, the East German government sent about 7,000 pieces of pottery engraved with cuneiform script back to Turkey. And the following year, the United States returned the Panon statue back to Thailand.

The Enlightenment attacked feudal dictatorship and privilege and promoted democracy and equality, but it also gave birth to the institution of the museum with all its flaws. However, a section of the museum's critics who influence the court of public opinion appear to be preoccupied more with venting their ire than with any true appreciation of the lost artifacts. In the process, common sense and rationality are pushed to the margins.

As the Arab proverb goes, "Man is afraid of time, and time is afraid of the pyramids." As humans wage a war of words and pontificate over who owns them, perhaps the artifacts at the centre of it all are looking at us with amusement.

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photo of a young man holding a sign: Filippo isn't a monster, he's the healthy son of the patriarchy

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Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press
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Updated Dec. 3, 2023 at 10:40 p.m.


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