Chinese change tack in push for return of relics

Left: Bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat made for a zodiac fountain in the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace in China. Below left: Fossil of a 220-million- year-old predatory fish. Through various ways and means, China has got these plundered cultural and h
Bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat made for a zodiac fountain in the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace in China. PHOTOS: REUTERS, CANADIAN CONSERVATION INSTITUTE

Earlier this year, at a ceremony in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, a 220-million-year-old fish fossil was returned to China, among other cultural relics that were exported illegally from the historically rich country.

The items, including a pair of carved wooden roof supports, were returned under the 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both China and Canada are signatories.

It was part of an approach by the Chinese government in recent years to try to recover historical relics lost to the country through robbery and smuggling.

These include relics pillaged during the period that the Chinese consider their century of humiliation, from the first Opium War in the 1840s to the founding of Communist China in 1949.

In 2015, relics were returned by France and the US, also through government negotiations. But this was not always the case.


Fossil of a 220-million- year-old predatory fish. Through various ways and means, China has got these plundered cultural and historical relics back. PHOTOS: REUTERS, CANADIAN CONSERVATION INSTITUTE

In 2000, the Chinese recovered three bronze heads that were removed from a zodiac fountain in the Yuanmingyuan Summer Palace when it was sacked by Western armies in 1860, by buying them at auctions.

In the 2000s, a few non-profit organisations were set up to recover cultural relics, including through buying them back, such as the Special Fund for Rescuing Lost Cultural Relics from Overseas, set up in 2002.

However, in 2009, a Chinese buyer bid for two more zodiac heads - the rat and rabbit - at a Christie's sale in Paris and refused to pay for them, indicating a change in thinking among the Chinese about the recovery of historical relics.

In an interview with a Chinese newspaper in 2014, Mr Niu Xianfeng, director of the Special Fund for Rescuing Lost Cultural Relics from Overseas, admitted knowing about the decision to not pay for the zodiac heads beforehand.

He added that in later negotiations for the return of the two heads, he was adamant about not paying for them. In the end, they were bought by a French company and donated to China, he told the Legal Weekly.

Goh Sui Noi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'Chinese change tack in push for return of relics'. Print Edition | Subscribe