Chinese team goes abroad on treasure hunt

China’s ‘treasure hunting team’ descended on the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last week, and James C Y Watt, the patrician head of Asian art, braced for a confrontation.

For the past two weeks, the delegation of Chinese cultural experts has swept through American institutions, seeking to reclaim items once ensconced at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, which was one of the world’s most richly appointed imperial residences until British and French troops plundered it in 1860.

With a crew from China’s national broadcaster filming the visit, the Chinese fired off questions about the provenance of objects on display, and when it came to a collection of jade pieces, they requested documentation to show that the pieces had been acquired legally.

But then, with no eureka discovery, the tension faded. The Chinese pronounced themselves satisfied, smiled for a group photo, and drove away. “That wasn’t so bad after all,” Watt said.

Emboldened by newfound wealth, China has been on a noisy campaign to reclaim relics that disappeared during its so-called century of humiliation, the period between 1842 and 1945 when foreign powers subjugated China through military incursions and onerous treaties.

But the quest, fuelled by national pride, has been quixotic, provoking fear at institutions overseas but in the end amounting to little more than a public relations show aimed at audiences back home.

At its core, such mixed signals are an outgrowth of China’s evolving self-identity. Is it a developing country with fresh memories of its victimisation by imperial powers? Or is it the world’s biggest exporter, eager to ensure good relations with the outside world to protect its trade-dependent economy?

“China is like an adolescent who took too many steroids,” said Liu Kang, a professor of Chinese studies at Duke University. “It has suddenly become big, but it finds it hard to coordinate and control its body. To the West, it can look like a monster.”

The great fall

Recounted in Chinese textbooks and in countless television dramas, the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan as it is called in Chinese, remains a crucial event epitomising China’s fall from greatness. Begun in the early 18th century and expanded over the course of 150 years, the palace was a wonderland of artificial hills and lakes, and so many ornate wooden structures that it took 3,000 troops three days to burn them down.

Stoked by populist sentiment but carefully managed by the Communist Party, the drive to reclaim lost cultural property has so far been halting. While officials privately acknowledge there is scant legal basis for repatriation, their public statements suggest that they would use lawsuits, diplomatic pressure and shame to bring home looted objects — not unlike Italy, Greece and Egypt, which have sought, with some success, to recover antiquities in European and American museums.

“The ideal scenario would be for the holders of these relics to donate them back to China,” said Chen Mingjie, the director of the palace museum, whose grounds include a shabby exhibition hall and an evocative pile of stone ruins that are instantly recognisable to any Chinese elementary school student.

The Communist Party has long used the narrative of foreign subjugation as a binding force, one that has become especially useful in recent years as the credo of market economics overruns the last remnants of its Marxist ideology.

But the 20-day spin through a dozen institutions has not been especially fruitful. Wu Jiabi, an archaeologist and the leader of the delegation, said that meaningful contacts had been made but acknowledged that the group had not discovered illicit relics.

The visit has had its share of mishaps. Not all the museums on the itinerary were prepared for the delegation. One stop, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, was scrapped after the group realised the museum was in the Midwest, not in the Northeast.

Method

The art experts whom the group met along the way offered consistent advice: The lion’s share of palace relics are in private hands, including those of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. “The best thing would be to look through the catalogues of Sotheby’s and Christie’s,” said Watt of the Metropolitan Museum.

Although the Chinese public broadly supports recovering such items, a few critics have suggested that the campaign merely distracts from the continued destruction of historic buildings and archeological sites across the country. A government survey released this month found that 23,600 registered relics had disappeared in recent years because of theft or illicit sales, while tens of thousands of culturally significant sites had been ploughed under for development.

What’s more, said Wu Zuolai, a professor at the China Academy of Art, the obsession with Yuanmingyuan ignores the plunder of older sites that are more artistically significant.

“Chinese history did not start with the Qing Dynasty,” he said. “This treasure hunting trip is just a political show. The media portray it as patriotic, but it’s just spreading hate.”

Like many of the curators the delegation met last week, Keith Wilson, who oversees the Chinese art collection at the Arthur M Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art, both part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said he was unsure what delegation members were really after. “They took a million miles of video, but in the end, I really felt they were not controlling their own destiny,” he said.

Liu, the researcher who was part of the delegation, seemed to admit as much, complaining that politics had upstaged scholarship. Even if he stumbled upon a palace relic, he said, he would be reluctant to take it back to an institution whose unheated exhibition space resembles little more than a military barracks. “To be honest, if you leave a thermos in our office, it gets broken,” he said.

“Maybe it’s better these things stay where they are.”

Liked the story?

  • 0

    Happy
  • 0

    Amused
  • 0

    Sad
  • 0

    Frustrated
  • 0

    Angry