James Hevia on Summer Palace Relics

With disputes relating to looted Chinese objects in the news, we asked Professor James Hevia of the University of Chicago, author of an important book called English Lessons, which includes analysis of foreign military actions in China from the 1860s through the post-Boxer occupation of 1900-1901 and was cited in our earlier post on the topic, if he had any thoughts on the subject to share with our readers. Already quoted briefly in a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the issue, here's what he had wrote in response to our query:
The recent announcement by Christie’s of yet another auction including Summer Palace plunder continues the long tradition of corporate and national indifference to the depredations of European armies in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century. Imperial and colonial warfare always resulted in plunder. This is not news, but does need to be remembered in a form other than the public sale of stolen artifacts. More importantly, no one has yet been able to arrive at a formula for addressing what are obviously understood by the descendents of victims of these events as ongoing forms of humiliation. It does not help the situation to read a Christie’s statement claiming that “for each and every item … there is clear legal title.” That is not simply preposterous, but Orwellian. How can there be clear legal title to looted objects? That bit of mendacity is further compounded by Christie’s claim that they also adhere to international law on cultural property. There was no international law in 1860 dealing with cultural property, which requires, I think, another way of thinking about the status and ownership of the objects in question. The same could be said for the museums like the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the Guimet in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and numerous military museums and officer’s messes in Europe and North America that hold objects taken in and around Beijing in 1860 and 1900-1901. Insofar as they are capable, the animal heads on sale at Christie’s stand in for this vast amount of plunder. Turning them into commodities only makes matters worse.

There is also a certain irony in all of this. Since 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China, the Yuan Ming Gardens in Beijing was the site of the “Never Forget National Humiliation” memorial wall. There inscribed on numerous plaques was the sordid history of European and American incursions into China, of opium dealing, and the imposition of unequal treaties that made up the “century of humiliation.” For reasons that are unclear, the monument was taken down last year. Perhaps it had something to do with the Olympics. But given this recent reminder of the violent behavior of Westerners in nineteenth century China, I would not be too surprised to see a new monument, one that might be titled “Never ever forget national humiliation.”


freude bud said...

Perhaps it is an unpleasant fact, but nearly all property to which there is clear legal title was at one point looted--all of England (by William the -->Conqueror<--) for example, the US (which was taken from folks who may not have had a modern understanding of property, but that it was wrested from them is indisputable), and Normandy France, which was, of course, named after its most illustrious looters, the Normans, or Vikings, who ended up settling down there.

If, for example, China were to adopt the notion of the alienatability of land, will every property transaction in Tibet be regarded by its Tibetan population as a humiliation? How about the Quighurs?

Obviously the sale of the Summer Palace relics is insensitive. Censure of the sale is probably warranted. But trying to legitimize any condemnation under cover of law is, well, more than just a tad disingenuous--on more than one level.

The China Beat said...

A comment from our regular contributor, Haiyan Lee:

CHINA BEAT readers might be interested in my article entitled “The Ruins of Yuanmingyuan; Or, How to Enjoy a National Wound,” newly published in _Modern China_, vol. 35, no. 2 (March 2009), 155-190.

Comments and criticisms are welcome: haiyan@stanford.edu

Dinesh said...

Trying to bring Tibet into this argument amounts to little more than a face saving measure to downplay the hypocrisy of auctioning off looted relics.

Anonymous said...

I think "freude bud" has done us all a service in reminding us that what applies to us should also apply to others.

I, for one, cannot help but hear the indignant cries to protect British heritage from despoilation whenever an aristocrat threatens to sell their Old Masters to the highest bidder (nevermind that many of these works were smuggled out of Europe in the late 18th and 19th c).

I also cannot help but notice that the legal rights of Jewish descendants to recover Nazi plunder is protected by the "Commission for Looted Art _in Europe_". While its focus is determinedly European, it nevertheless entails a few highminded principles enshrined in the following international agreements (taken from its website):

* Inter-Allied Declaration against Acts of Dispossession committed in Territories under Enemy Occupation and Control, London 5 January 1943
* Final Act of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, 1-22 July 1944, Enemy Assets and Looted Property
* 1998 Washington Principles with respect to Nazi-Confiscated Art
* Resolution 1205 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of November 1999
* Declaration of October 2000 of the Vilnius International Forum on Holocaust Era Looted Cultural Assets
* European Parliament Resolution and Report of Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market November 2003

So, no, while restitution is a legal minefield as "freude bud" so rightly points out -- it does appear that there are some instances where legislation can be enacted in spite of finer scruples.

No one is suggesting that the likes of the British Museum should be stripped bare, but the double standards are simply too obvious.

And anyway, it's telling that Hevia's main point has been utterly overlooked in media coverage of this issue: the dark side of western imperial history is something which most western societies have not faced up to, let alone begun to apologise for.

Babygrand said...

Seems like Prof. Hevia has a great understanding of the emotional undercurrent associated w/ those auctions.