- Elginism - https://www.elginism.com -

China’s Melina Mercouri

This piece on the Chinese Bronzes [1] identifies Cai Mingchao as China’s Melina Mercouri – someone who will spearhead the fight to reunify cultural property with its homeland. Events such as the ones involving the bronzes often re-expose fault lines in international relations that people had thought were long forgotten, by highlighting the inequities of the past.

Financial Times [2]

Beijing bronzes expose faultline with west
By Geoff Dyer in Beijing
Published: March 6 2009 19:15 | Last updated: March 6 2009 19:15

Mention the Earls of Elgin and one notorious holder of the title springs to mind – the one-time British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (and 7th earl) who, in 1801, removed the marble sculptures from the Parthenon that are now housed in the British Museum.

His son is less well-known, but he was also responsible for what many view as an infamous act of cultural vandalism. In the aftermath of the second opium war in 1860, it was the 8th Earl of Elgin who ordered French, British and Punjabi soldiers to destroy the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.

The culture wars started by the Lords Elgin are still raging. Greece continues to lobby for the marbles to be restored to Athens. And in China, many people are fuming at the sale of two bronzes apparently looted from the palace before it was burnt to the ground. Auctioned in Paris last month as part of the collection of the late Yves Saint Laurent, the bronzes have become China’s Elgin Marbles.

In Cai Mingchao, China has now found its Melina Mercouri – the late gravel-voiced actress and culture minister who led the Greek campaign to return the marbles. A collector and auctioneer himself, Mr Cai announced in Beijing that he had made the winning €31.5m ($40m, £28m) bid for the bronzes but was refusing to pay – in effect sabotaging the auction. He was hailed as a patriotic hero.

Amid a growing wave of legal disputes over stolen antiquities, the story of the bronzes is particularly important because it has exposed a historical faultline running through China’s relationship with the west that keeps threatening to erupt.

Built by the Qianlong emperor in the mid-18th century, the Old Summer Palace was a vast playground of enchanting gardens, lakes and pavilions. There were 240 bridges to cross the different pools of water. The destruction of the palace is probably the rawest nerve in what the Chinese refer to as “the century of national shame and humiliation” when the British, French and other colonial powers took advantage of the decaying Qing dynasty to occupy parts of the country and prize open the economy for the opium trade. The site of the palace used to boast a monument about past humiliations, although it was taken down last year, perhaps because of the Olympics.

For all its outward confidence, modern China has a brittle alter ego that occasionally uses these events to play the victim. The disrupted Olympic torch relay last year and the 1999 bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy touched that nerve.

China’s Communist party has become the jealous guardian of these historical memories. Indeed, one of the worst acts of media censorship in recent years was about the control of history. In 2006, Freezing Point magazine published an essay by a historian who argued that school history textbooks presented a distorted version of the destruction of the palace and other colonial crimes against China. The magazine was temporarily closed and its editor fired. So when Chinese officials start talking about “national humiliation”, it is sometimes a clue that you are being encouraged to look the other way. And with unemployment soaring and unrest in Tibet beginning to bubble up again, a bout of nationalist pique is not unwelcome in Beijing.

Plenty of Chinese are sceptical about the use and misuse of their history, pointing out that it was only a couple of decades ago, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, that Beijing really started to promote the narrative of colonial humiliation. China’s recent record of historical preservation is, to put it mildly, poor. Would the Old Summer Palace have survived the cultural revolution? “We are the ones who have caused the most serious damage to our heritage,” the architect Ai Weiwei said this week.

Chinese civilisation also has better standard bearers than these bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit. The two sculptures were part of a fountain at the palace that was the work of a Frenchman. The writer Jasper Becker, who once saw kids from the Communist Youth League declaring their loyalty to the party among the palace ruins, says that the estate was really “an inspiring symbol of cultural exchange”. Parts of it were designed by Italian Jesuits and the letters they wrote home about the wonders of Beijing helped to spur the wave of European enthusiasm for chinoiserie.

Yet while some of the fury is stage-managed, we cannot escape that easily. The Old Summer Palace is still a stark reminder about the arrogance of the colonial impulse. Pretty much unanimously, Britons of my generation believe that there was something deeply wrong about the empire, but we also use this simple admission to avoid thinking about the dirty business that came with it. We closed the book and at great cost. It took the Iraq debacle to teach us again that even when we think our motivations are good, as some did, the people at the other end of the gun will see things differently.

Elgin, who died in Dharamsala, the Indian hill town now home to the Dalai Lama, was a liberal internationalist of his age. His defenders said he wanted to punish the Chinese emperor – who had kidnapped his aides – and not the Chinese people. Well, he misjudged that one. Even at the time, some foreigners understood the crude insult of his decision. “What was done to the Parthenon was done to the Summer Palace,” Victor Hugo wrote only a year later. “We Europeans are the civilised ones and for us the Chinese are barbarians. This is what civilisation has done to barbarism.”

The writer is FT Beijing bureau chief