Pride Sends China to U.S. on Art-Treasure Hunt
By Fred R. Conrad of the New York Times.
A Chinese team that toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking items that China lost.
By Andrew Jacobs
Thursday, Deceer 17, 2009
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 the 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," Mr. 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, fueled 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.
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 epitomizing 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.
"The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it," said Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer and a drving force in the movement to regain stolen antiquities. "It reminds people what may come when we are too weak."
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, domestic 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.
  We can assume that Mao's swimming on the Yangste just isn't as inspring as it used to be....
  But, ahhhh! Those French troops just love their acquired bibs and bobs. But we should try and remember the full reasons why they and the British were there, and that the Communist Party's memoirs are not going to be historically accurate.
  The Metopolitan Museum of Art has a 'patrician' as one of its heads of department, does it? The Founding Fathers, and the Communist Party will not be pleased at the use of that term, Andrew.
  I believe that it is more accurately written as the Yüan-ming-yüan in English though. Who knows?
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