Returning looted rat and rabbit heads boosts French image

By Xu Peixi
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, April 30, 2013
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Two imperial bronze sculptures that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace will come home later this year, thanks to the donation of the French art-collecting Pinault family, China's top heritage authority announced on April 26. [Photo/]

Two imperial bronze sculptures that were looted from Beijing's Old Summer Palace will come home later this year, thanks to the donation of the French art-collecting Pinault family, China's top heritage authority announced on April 26. [Photo/] 

The recent French decision to return a pair of bronze rat and rabbit heads, which were looted from the Chinese royal garden Yuanmingyuan nearly 150 years ago, to China can be interpreted as an extremely friendly gesture. The fact that the pair of animal heads are to be given back by their French owner Mr. Francois-Henri Pinault, implies a message of regret and reflection, and is more meaningful than if Chinese businessmen had purchased them – as was the case in the retrieval of other bronze heads – and will help to heal the psychological wounds left by the Opium Wars in Chinese collective memory.

The gesture addresses Chinese feelings. It is allegedly the first time that something very positive has been done by a dominant Western power. Existing in Chinese diplomatic arena for decades had been an often-heard Chinese response to foreign improper actions calling for Western (including Japanese) respect of Chinese feelings. This discourse dropped from the Chinese diplomatic vocabulary a few years ago, not because the Chinese did not care, but because numerous frustrations have always been followed by disappointment.

The French gesture reaches to the core of a historical trauma. Chinese modern history begins with the Opium Wars. The widely-watched Chinese history documentary Road to Revival opens in this way: "In the first half of the 19th century, the Chinese Qing Dynasty was still obsessed with a dream of peace and prosperity. It did not realize at all that its dream was coming to an end. A disaster, the deepest in Chinese history, was approaching." This disaster refers to the Opium Wars that kicked open a century-long struggle for China to defend and strengthen itself. During the second Opium War, British and French troops burned down Yuanmingyuan and looted valuable artifacts, including 12 animal heads that were decorations of a water clock.

These animal symbols were used to mark years and hours. However, their significance in this case lies mainly in the psychological impact caused by the memories of humiliation that have crystallized into physical images. What happened between the Opium Wars and 1949 – wars and battles, local bandits and international armies, reforms and revolutions, drug trade and religious missions, the desperation and hopelessness – had effectively destroyed the pride and confidence of a glorious agricultural civilization. Recovering these relics symbolizes making peace with the past. The ox, tiger, monkey, pig, and horse heads were returned after paying huge sums of money. According to current owner Mr. Pinault, the return of the rat and rabbit heads will be a "donation," multiplying its symbolic power tremendously.

The message these bronze heads carry needs to be scrutinized in light of the two dramatic media events that haunt Sino-French relations. The first relates to a disrupted 2008 Beijing Olympic torch relay in Paris. Sino-French relations suffered from the events leading up to the Beijing Olympics. The one-sided media coverage of the riots in Tibet deepened China's mistrust of French media. The situation worsened in April upon the wide circulation of footage of a disabled Chinese torch holder being attacked in her wheelchair by a protester in Paris. A youth movement against French media and products was formed both online and offline in China. A whole genre of youth media was born. They earned a name as April media, which remains active in Chinese media landscape by being critical of both international and domestic injustice. Western resistance to the 2008 Beijing Olympics destroyed the idealistic illusions these young Chinese students used to hold towards Western media and system.

A second dispute arose in the following year in Christie's controversial auction of the two animal heads. The auction however did not proceed properly when the highest Chinese bidder refused to pay. Mr. Pinault then acquired the bronzes himself and announced his decision to give them back to China in his visit synchronizing the first state visit of French President Francois Hollande, during which China placed an order for 60 Airbus and shortly before this, Mr. Pinault's Christie's had become the first international auction house to operate independently in China's mainland. The French gesture therefore contains additional political and commercial implications. But these considerations can be easily brushed aside. China would not mind buying 1000 airbus planes if the Chinese cultural and historical confidence can be restored.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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