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Home >> Opinion
UPDATED: 17:20, January 30, 2007
How many Chinese cultural treasures "lost" overseas?
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The vast amount of priceless Chinese cultural treasures which have been "lost" overseas is simply amazing due to historic reasons and the temptation of the reality. With a take-off of Chinese economy in recent years, however, a growing number of Chinese, both at home and overseas, have followed with great interest and tracked this phenomenon and retrieved some of the these treasures.

About 10 million pieces of Chinese cultural relics have been flowing or "drained" overseas, mainly to the Europe, the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asian nations

More than 10 million pieces of invaluable and marvolous Chinese historical and cultural treasures have been "sunk into oblivion" in Europe, the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asian nations and regions after the Opium War of 1840, and about 1 million pieces of them are raked as the first and second class categories of Chinese archeological objects, according to the Chinese Archeological Society.

Meanwhile, relevant statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) note that more than 200 museums in 47 countries boast a total of 1.64 million Chinese relics and over 10 times more Chinese antiques are being stored by ordinary people worldwide today.

The two groups of statistics indicate a figure of proximity, that is, the number of Chinese cultural relics scattered globally exceeds the 10-million mark. Of course, all of these relics are not necessarily "vanished". Niu Xianfeng, deputy secretary general of a special fund to rescue Chinese cultural relics overseas, acknowledges that "To be specific, these relics should be termed Chinese treasures kept overseas," adding that during the period from the Opium War of 1840 to the establishment of New China in 1949, the number of relics looted in war years and got lost because of theft, burglary, and trade by dishonest and illegal means, which are now scattered globally is really too difficult to calculate and reckon.

The 10 million-plus Chinese cultural treasures "stored" overseas comprise priceless calligraphy and painting works, ancient bronze ware, pottery and porcelain, sculptures, oracle bone inscriptions and classical works, which are distributed mainly in Britain, France, the U.S., Japan and other countries. There are more than 23,000 pieces of Chinese relics in the British Museum alone, including the national-grade gems and unrivalled art works and ace ancient bronze ware objects.

The U.S. has kept most of the traditional Chinese paintings. There are over 1,200 Chinese painting pieces in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. alone, and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, there are close to 500 outstanding Chinese painting works. And the British Museum is famed for most exquisite Chinese paintings it has kept, with a "picture of lady officials" by Gu Kaizhi, a top painter of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 A.D.) most eye-catching, conspicuous and enchanting..

La Bibliotheque Nationale de France, which has long renowned for its stored art and craft works from Asia, has a wide range of brand-name Chinese porcelain treasures of various dynasties, from China's earliest primitive ceramics to the elegant blue-and-white porcelain and the five-color (blue, yellow, red, white and black) porcelain of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

The U.S. currently stores most Chinese local chronicles and typical classical works, and its Capitol Library in Washington D.C. has kept more than 4,000 Chinese local chronicles. In the meantime, there are more than 3,000 rare classic works and over 2,000 family tree records around the country. And Japan keeps most of China's ancient oracle bone inscriptions and, of approximately 30,000 "lost" oracle inscribed bones scattered far and wide globally, it has close to 13,000 pieces.

Dunhuang Grottoes in northwestern China's Gansu province, dating back 366 A.D., contains a reservoir of Buddhist statues, frescoes, scriptures as well as Buddhist sutras and relevant records. To date, China has kept only some 20,000 sutras and related records, or 30 percent of the total housed previously in the grottoes, whereas the 70 percent have been "drained' overseas. Among them, 13,700 records in Oriental editions are now kept in the British Museum, 6,000 sutras in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France; 12,000 sutras in the Asia Ethnic Research Institute in St. Peterberg, Russia, and close to 2,000 kept in the India affairs section in Britain. Furthermore, Dunhuang relics are also available in Japan, the U.S. Sweden, Austria and the Republic of Korea today.

Retrieving these historical relics "lost" overseas hinges chiefly on three options, namely buying back or counter-purchase, demanding their return, or the means of donating

A national treasure recovery project, initiated and launched in July 2003, was aimed to rescue "lost" Chinese cultural relics and protect the country's national heritages. The cultural relics disappeared in unusual or extraordinary conditions will be retrieved in three ways, buying back, demanding their return, or donating.

To date, buying back constitutes a conventional method. The return of "Pig-head Bronze Statue" from the Yuan Min Yuan (or named the Winter Palace then) provides a very good, successful example. The Pig-head Bronze Statue had been vanished in the wreckage of the Yuan Min Yuan Palace by the Anglo-French troops in 1860 and slipped overseas afterward. Almost one and a half centuries later, in the spring of 2003, Chinese cultural relics experts traced it to an American private collector. Through repeated, patient consultations and negotiations between the two sides, the collector finally agreed to transfer it back to China. Upon learning the information, Mr. Stanley Ho, a tycoon from Macao made a donation of 7 million yuan (some 880,000 US dollars) in Sept. 2003 to the Special Fund to Rescue Cultural Relics Overseas to get it back.

Many problems and difficulties are involved in the buying-back effort, however, as funds for counterpurchases disproportion the hefty, sky-rocketing prices of cultural relics and the trying effort often fail half-way. Moreover, some special funds come mainly from social donations and donations made by enterprises, which would usually hope to keep the returned relics to themselves.

The toughest way to recover these relics is to demand their return, nevertheless, because it involves a host of thorny issues or events left over by history. For example, the ace painting works of "Forty Sceneries in the Yuan Min Yuan (or the Winter Palace as previously termed) is cited as an object of return, but nothing has been done in this regard so far. Painted by two top court painters during the rein of Emperor Qianlong during the Imperial Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it is the sole mastery painting works with vivid poetry lines to depict a maganificent, panoramic view of the classic imperial garden of the time. It was snatched and taken away by a French colonel during the looting of the garden. Till today, it has been still kept in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

With respect to donations, there have also been precedents to go by. But only a few people of insight are engaged in this kind of charitable activity. Ten lost classical bronze windows from the Precious Cloud Pavilion, west of the lofty Tower of Buddhist Incense atop the Longevity (Wanshou) Hill in the pictureque Summer Palace, in western Beijing, was returned to China free of charge by a fund initiated by the founder of the American International Assurance Co. Ltd, (AIA), which bought it from a French collector in 1993, and it is indeed termed a feat of great service to the people of China.

By People's Daily Online


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