December 7, 2009

China’s hunt for their looted treasures

Posted at 2:08 pm in Similar cases

The looting of the Summer Palace in Beijing (an act carried out largely under the instruction of the Eighth Earl of Elgin – Son of the Seventh Earl who took the Parthenon Marbles) continues to cause controversy today, due to the fact that many of the artefacts from the site have ended up in museums around the world – although often they are not even on public display.

Now though, China is making a first step towards resolving the issue, building up a catalogue of the surviving artefacts & where they are located.

Wall Street Journal

China Goes Treasure Hunting
Nationalism, not art history, drives the hunt for Summer Palace artifacts.
OPINION ASIA – NOVEMBER 23, 2009, 1:16 P.M. ET

Next year Beijing will mark the 150th anniversary of the burning and looting of the Summer Palace by British and French forces. But the city has hit on an odd way to commemorate these events: In preparation, Palace Director Chen Mingjie recently announced that researchers will attempt to catalogue every item looted from the complex and now in museums overseas.

At first sight this might appear to be a purely academic exercise. Mr. Chen says he wants to identify works of art, not repatriate them, but on closer examination the plan has all the makings of a public-relations effort aimed at the Chinese people themselves.

Strident demands for the unconditional surrender of looted works of art are frequently made by Chinese officials. In the Chinese narrative, the destruction and looting of the Summer Palace were simply wanton acts of foreign imperialist greed and oppression, and are repeatedly presented as such in schools and the media. The aim is to show foreigners as united in attempting to invade and oppress China, and the Communist Party as the only bulwark behind which the Chinese people can effectively come together.

In fact, the British and French forces were present in China to obtain ratification of a treaty concluded with the Manchu overlords of China two years earlier, and under arrangements agreed with a Manchu prince, they sent an advance party under flag of truce to arrange details of the signing at a village just east of Beijing. The members of the party were taken prisoner and tortured; 18 died.

The looting and destruction of the Summer Palace was in revenge for this kidnapping and murder. British plenipotentiary Lord Elgin chose to strike directly at the Manchu Qing dynasty, much despised by the Chinese themselves, destroying palaces and art collections, rather than causing further loss of Chinese life. But it is rare for any narrative of 1860 other than the government’s own to appear in China. In 2006 when philosophy Professor Yuan Weishi suggested in China Youth Daily’s Freezing Point supplement that the destruction was largely the result of Manchu stupidity, he was disciplined, the publication was suspended for “rectification,” and its editor, fired.

The idea that Mr. Chen’s project is essentially political, conducted to support the narrative “Chinese good, foreigner bad,” is reinforced by its essentially impractical nature. Mr. Chen himself has stated that he doesn’t know how many looted items there are, the contemporary catalogue of the palace’s contents having also been consigned to the flames in 1860. But when announcing the project on October 18 he offered the remarkably detailed “rough calculation” that there are around 1.5 million items in 2,000 museums across 47 countries, which suggests he at least has a target figure. Mr. Chen’s office said he was unavailable for comment.

The British Museum has emerged as a particular target: On October 30, state-run weekly magazine Beijing Review named the Museum as the world leader in Summer Palace acquisitions, with a total of 230,000 pieces. But this is in fact 10 times the size of the Museum’s total Chinese collection. “And of course,” adds Museum spokeswoman Hannah Boulton, “not all of these—or even the majority—come from the Summer Palace. Currently we are trying to estimate the number of objects potentially from that source but it is likely the figure will be quite small.”

Problems of identification arise from the fact that few of the Summer Palace objects were unique, and any link to the events of 1860 usually amounts to no more than a statement once made by someone in a chain of sellers who may merely have intended to boost an item’s value. Even the most obscure English country houses often have such items, such as the small 16th-18th century hunting lodge called Newark Park now belonging to Britain’s National Trust and hidden away in a leafy part of Gloucestershire. Tenant and manager Michael Claydon claims a tapestry there to be of Summer Palace origin.

“My partner and I bought this in the 1970s directly from the descendants of Robert Bowlby, the Times [of London] correspondent with the Anglo-French expedition who was murdered by the Chinese,” Mr. Claydon explains. Bowlby’s surviving family purchased the item as a memorial and it remained with them for nearly a century before reaching Newark Park, thus apparently establishing a clear—if anecdotal—link. That the tapestry is actually of Japanese origin does not worry him.

But it seems unlikely that researchers will knock on Mr. Claydon’s door or hundreds like it. So far only major institutions such as the British Museum, Paris’s Château de Fontainbleu, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have been mentioned. The Bejing Review claimed that “Even with promises of cooperation, it remains unclear whether the British Museum will grant Chinese researchers access to 90 percent of its collection that has remained behind closed doors since China would be entitled to reclaim these looted cultural artifacts” under a 1970 Unesco convention.

This volley has no basis in fact. Although the British Museum has yet to receive any formal request from the Chinese, it has already begun to examine its archive for any documentary evidence that might be helpful, says Ms. Boulton. Although both Britain and China have signed the 1970 convention its terms are not retroactive and offer no entitlement to items acquired before that date. Much of the collection is on permanent display, or appears in regular temporary exhibitions, and delicate materials can be seen by appointment.

China rarely fails to achieve a target it sets publicly, at least by its own account. So whatever the difficulties in confirming provenance, and the widespread distribution of candidate antiquities, Mr. Chen’s 1.5 million item cataloguing project will be announced as successful. Indeed, plans for an exhibition in the second half of 2010 and the simultaneous publication of an illustrated catalogue of items overseas have already been announced.

Whatever the results of the research now putatively under way, the message of catalogue, exhibition and press coverage has already been decided: The Communist Party is once again standing up to foreign aggression.

Mr. Neville-Hadley is the author of several books on China, including “Beijing,” forthcoming from Data Sinica.

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