February 27, 2009

How China could regain its lost relics

Posted at 3:27 pm in Similar cases

Following the attention drawn to the sale of Chinese artefacts formerly owned by Yves Saint Lauren, a number of possible solutions to the issue have been suggested.

UPI Asia

How China can regain its lost relics
By Wu Zuolai
Guest Commentator
Published: February 26, 2009

Beijing, China — A Paris court Tuesday rejected a petition by a group of Chinese lawyers to stop the auction house Christie’s from auctioning off a pair of Chinese antiques. The bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit were looted more than 150 years ago by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.

As the court allowed the bidding to go forward on these Chinese cultural relics, stolen from Beijing’s Summer Palace, I began to worry that the Chinese people would respond with emotion rather than reason. As a result, a cultural issue would become a political issue between France and China; imagined, politicized feelings would become real national and racial feelings.

I sincerely hope that the Chinese lawyers group led by Liu Yang – who says he plans to proceed with lawsuits against the bidders until the two bronze sculptures, which belong to a set of 12 animal heads, are returned – will restore this issue to its original nature as a matter of cultural relics. It’s a problem left over by history, a cultural issue, and should neither be politicized nor expanded into a symbolic incident replete with patriotism and nationalism.

“Although our lawsuit was turned down, we still felt honored, though defeated. After all, in such a gigantic court as that of Paris in France, we’ve spoken in the unyielding voice of the Chinese people,” some Chinese state media quoted Liu as saying.

By comparison, the discourse of the French court appeared more rational. It rejected this appeal on the grounds that the case went beyond its jurisdiction after the lawyers asked the French Cultural Department to intervene, and that the plaintiff, the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe, could neither represent the country of China nor the public interest, but only the association itself.

The plaintiff’s lawyer had previously expressed the opinion that the educational value of this case surpassed the outcome. Clearly this so-called “educational value” is evaluated according to a certain kind of thinking. But are the Chinese educating the French people through the lawsuit about cultural relics originally from Beijing’s Summer Palace? Or is the case actually more educational for us, the Chinese?

Some Chinese scholars and students that are studying for advanced degrees in France went to the streets to distribute pamphlets, to let the French know the history of the bronzes. Mobilizing public opinion in France would certainly have some effect.

However, the other side of the story is that the interests of the current owners of the bronzes are protected by law, as they could potentially bring a great deal of money.

In fact, what the Chinese must do is not to educate the people of other nations but the people of our own – to utilize international rules to protect the legitimate rights and interests of China with regard to its cultural relics.

Although there are diplomatic conventions permitting governments to retrieve cultural relics that are taken from the country by illegal means, existing international regulations cannot be made retroactive for relics that have been lost for more than 100 years. This situation cannot be changed, despite the Chinese government’s declaration that it will not abandon its efforts to reclaim its lost relics.

Apart from international rules, 18 museums in the West, including the British Museum and the Louvre, jointly issued a statement in 2002 opposing the return of cultural relics that were stolen or looted from other countries. Apparently the declaration reflects their own positions.

Thus, the Chinese people should consider how to overcome the obstacles created by these international regulations and this declaration.

Both Egypt and Greece face the same issue. So what the Chinese national cultural institutions and legal circles should do is to draft a new cultural convention through the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or other related international institutions.

This new convention should advocate the moral value of culture, which is a universal value recognized by Western civilized societies, so that no one will object to it. The value of historical relics cannot be fully appreciated unless they are displayed in their homeland. Moreover, the value of cultural relics as a whole is far greater than the value of scattered pieces.

Only when culture is respected can the protection and collection of historical relics not violate human moral values. Behind the objects are the invisible cultural and moral values, which would ultimately require a moral deed – returning the booty to its original place.

In short, the lost cultural relics from Beijing’s Summer Palace are a legal issue and something the Chinese have to rationally face. Neither governmental strength nor current law can bring these items back to China. Spending huge amounts of money to buy them back to ease hurt feelings, on the other hand, would put the Chinese on the sucker list.

The most effective approach would be to unite the major countries that are in the same situation and come up with new regulations on the return of cultural relics. Then each nation’s precious relics could return to their birthplace, their spiritual home.

(Wu Zuolai is a noted cultural scholar and writer based in Beijing. This article is edited and translated from the Chinese by UPI Asia.com; the Chinese original can be found at http://wubloger.blog.sohu.com/110984179.html ©Copyright Wu Zuolai.)

Daily Mail News (Pakistan)

Human rights absent in relic ransacking
27th February 2009

Western media ascribe China’s outcry against the auction in Paris of two Qing Dynasty animal heads to “nationalist sentiment”, as if any other nation had a legitimate interest in these relics.
Most support Mr Pierre Berge, who has asked Christie’s to auction the two bronze heads, one of a rat and the other of a rabbit. The relics were among 12 animal fountainheads, representing the Chinese zodiac, which once graced the front of the Xiyanglou, or European-style mansion, at the Old Summer Palace in 19th century Beijing.
Mr Berge is apparently convinced of his legal right to the bronzes, even though he admits they were stolen from China 150 years ago. In asserting his right to auction off the stolen relics, he defends the interests of museums worldwide which hold “many other looted pieces”.
He even goes so far as to wrap himself in the mantle of “human rights”, telling the French media that he is “ready to give these Chinese heads to China if they are ready to recognize human rights”.
I don’t see how Mr Berge qualifies as a human rights activist when he holds onto stolen relics of what Victor Hugo called “a wonder of the world”.
For Mr Berge, “human rights” is a convenient phrase to bolster his image. But he is still relying on imperialist logic when he proposes to exchange the looted items. His remarks only serve to remind us of the brutal Opium Wars that the British and French imperialists waged against China 150 years ago. Before they ransacked the Old Summer Palace and stole its treasures, the British and French marauders had already forced China to buy opium and robbed it of its autonomy. Ultimately, they subjugated all of China and shot anyone who resisted. There was no mention of “human rights” then.
Even those who witnessed the ransacking couldn’t help but note that it was “a memorable day in the history of plunder and destruction”.
James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin and Kincardine, who ordered the plunder, later recalled: “Such a scene of desolation There was not a room I saw in which half the things had not been taken away or broken in pieces …”
I don’t know if Mr. Berge has read Victor Hugo’s “Sur les Expditions Franco-Britaniques en Chine”, or his letter to Captain Butler on November 25, 1861. Translated into English, the letter was re-published in the November 1985 issue of the Unesco Courier.
Hugo was remarkably clear-eyed about the actions of what he calls two bandits, France and Britain. And he lamented the fact that “What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace, more thoroughly and better … All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient.”
The bronze heads being auctioned at Christie’s are only two of some 17 million Chinese relics that are scattered overseas. Many were taken illegally, and I believe we Chinese have the right to fight for their return. If Mr Berge wants to talk about “human rights,” let’s talk about our right to our cultural heritage.
Meanwhile, I’m encouraged by the support of people like Mr Bernard Gomez, president of the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe, who is working to realize Victor Hugo’s wish: “I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China.”

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