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Chinese Treasures in the West

9 March 2009

About 150 years ago, the joint forces of Anglo-French army conquered Beijing and burnt Yuanmingyuan Garden, the biggest royal garden known in history which housed innumerable Chinese cultural relics. Among the artifices that looted by the army from the garden, the two zodiac heads, designed and crafted under the guidance of an Italian man who worked as a consultant to the cultureless Manchurian rulers, are probably of little value in comparison to those true historical treasures such as masterpiece paintings Training To Be A Lady (《女史箴图》) and Ode on Goddess Luo (《洛神赋图》) by Gu Kaizhi (顾恺之) of East Jin (东晋, 317-420), Portraits of Emperors of Past Dynasties (历代帝王图) by Yan Liben (阎立本) of Tang Dynasty (618-907), as well as Five Coloured Parrots (《五色鹦鹉图》) by Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗) of Song Dynasty (960-1279).

According to a report prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), currently there are about 1.64 million pieces of Chinese antiques scattered in museums and art galleries of 47 countries; as for those held in overseas private collections, the figure is ten times higher.

Professor Lin Shuzhong (林树中) at Nanjing Arts Institute has spent two decades and 100,000 US dollars to have compiled multi-volumed books The List of Overseas Collections of Famous Chinese Paintings, The List of Overseas Collections of Famous Chinese Sculptures, and The List of Overseas Collection of Famous Chinese Calligraphy, with Britain, France, America and Japan being exposed as the major collectors of the looted and stolen Chinese cultural relics.

The British Museum, for instance, has amassed about 23,000 pieces of Chinese artworks, while the collection of Chinese antiques at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, America, ranges from sculptures, paintings, bronze articles to porcelain objects, including The Portraits of Emperors of the Past Dynasties. Currently in Japan there are over 1,000 museums and art galleries, and almost every one of them has held some illegally obtained Chinese cultural artifacts, with majority of them being Tang tricolor pottery (唐三彩) created during the Tang Dynasty.

Although not all Chinese articles at the overseas museums and art galleries were acquired illegally, a great number of them were obtained through looting or other dubious methods. During 1876 and 1928, there were as many as 42 groups of so called explorers and researchers arrived in northwest region of China and smuggled nearly half of the total murals and books from Dunhuang Mogao Grottos, with 13,700 pieces now at British Museum and around 6,000 pieces in National Library of France.

When a director from America's Metropolitan Museum of Art traveled to Dragon Gate Grotto (龙门石窟) in Luoyang (洛阳) in the 30s of the last century, he paid for the local bandits to chisel off stone carving Emperor Solute Buddha, that was created 1,500 years ago during North Wei period (386-534), and broke the precious and sacred artwork into pieces so as to allow him to smuggle it out of China. Later this same American art gallery director had a hand of the giant Buddha statue Lushena (卢舍那大佛) chopped off and shipped to the United States.

While Americans and other Western nations were quick to condemn what Taliban did to the giant Buddha figure in Afghanistan, they choose to ignore what they used to do to the Buddha icons in China: numerous statues were beheaded by the "art lovers" of the West. In one instance, a Buddha sculpture at Mt Celestial Dragon Grotto (天龙山石窟) in Shanxi Province (山西) had its head landed in New York while its body to be brought to Japan's Idemitsu Museum of Arts. During the WWII, Japanese invasion armies would even banned Chinese from approaching their own Yungang Grotto (云冈石窟) heritage with a notice board installed at the entrance that read: "Anyone entered the premises without permission will be shot on site (擅入者,格杀勿论)". Though eventually Japan lost the war, China lost countless historical treasures to its Fascist neighbour.

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A Dreamland
in Foggy Winter Morning
at A Chinese Village


Early winter morning at Stone City Cheng Village (石城程村) in Mt Dazhang Rural District (大鄣山乡), Wuyuan County (婺源县), Jiangxi Province (江西), a land of green bamboos and crystal rivers in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

(Source: 徐振华, Xinhuanet)

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