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TED Case Studies
Number 676, 2003
by Thomas De Stefano
Chinese Cultural Relics: The Movement to have them Returned to Mainland China
General Information
Legal Cluster
Bio-Geographic Cluster
Trade Cluster
Environment Cluster
Other Clusters

Tomb Guardian Creature, Tang Dynasty

I. Identification

1. The Issue: The issue at hand here is the retention of Chinese cultural relics in foreign countries, and the movement to have said relics returned to mainland China. As of now, most of what is considered the Chinese cultural heritage is concentrated in several places. First is Taiwan, which houses many artifacts that were taken from places such as the forbidden city when the nationaists fled Mainland China. Second is in museums that are based primarily in the United Kingdom and France, and to a lesser extent the United States and Japan. The third is in the hands of private collectors which will purchases these artifacts from auction houses. However, not all of these artifacts have been legitimately procured, as some are robbed from gravesites.

2. Description: There is a movement within the Peoples' Republic of China to have their cultural artifacts returned from abroad. This reflects a return to nationalism in the sense that are uniquely Chinese is a historically cultural sense are being embraced and preserved once again. There are no major advocacy groups, except for the Chinese government, and an organization known as the Chinese Society of Cultural Relics. The latter which is based in Taiwan and is not associated with the Peoples' government in Beijing, but is more of an advocacy group to have the national museums in Taiwan be the only place that these relics would be able to be both displayed and accessed.

Several different reasons present themselves as to why this movement exists. One is that there are precious few relics left intact in China. This is due mostly to the tumultous history that has existed within the last several decades in the Peoples' Republic of China. Many relics were destroyed during the cultural revolution which stressed the destruction of old beliefs. Of course, relics representing China's imperial and buddhist traditions were the first to be destroyed. This is most evident in a placed called Longmen(Dragon's Gate) Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan Province. It was here that hundreds of Buddhas were carved into a sheer stone face that overlooks both forest and river. However, all but the largest of the statues have either been destroyed or decapitated. The smaller and more accessible statues have almost all been destroyed. It was also during this time that the upper classes in China were having their property forcibly seized. Among those in the upper class, antiques and works of art were fairly common. However if these articles were found, they were quickly destroyed. Such as the Buddha Figures shown below.

Buddhist Stele with  Dual  Images of the Bodhisattva  Maitreya

Although China's own self-destructive policies may have lead to the destruction of part of their heritage, this was not the only way by which Chinese artifacts were taken from the mainland. Throughout the years, China had been engaged in trade via the silk road, meaning that many of its silks and lacquerware had been spread throughout the Middle East and Europe. Trade facilitated the spreading of Chinese wares, but so did both theivery and conflict. Many of the more ornate and intricate sculptures as well as Jade pieces were plundered during conflicts such as the opium wars and the boxer rebellion. Many were also stolen so that they could be sold on the black market, which would eventually find its way to western auction houses. Below are some examples of artifacts that were typically stolen. Artifacts that are as rare and old as these would be able to fetch a considerable price from not only private collectors but also museums and archaeological societies that wish to study them.

Relics such as Tomb Guardians(pictured at the top and below)are especially valuable, not only because they can potentially be thousands of years old, but also because they allow for a glimpse into ancient Chinese Culture. In periods such as the Tang Dynasty tomb guardians were not only present to ward off physical intruders, but also spiritual presences as well.

Dragon Plaque, 3rd Centure BC


Tomb Guardian Figure, 4th Century BC

Now, as China begins to be on the forefront of emerging powers, there is a movement to reclaim and restore the cultural heritage that they had once lost. Through centuries of trade, conflict, theivery, and social turmoil, the relics that symbolized China's ancient culture and heritage have since mostly left their borders. This entails that there is a desire to have cultural relics stored in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, as well as numerous private collections to be returned to China. However, China has had limited success in regaining its relics as it typically has to bid on them in auctions. This is an expensive process, and typically results in China buying back artifacts that were previously stolen from archaeological digs within their borders. This also does not provide for some way for China to attain the most valuable artifacts that are prized pieces in the collections of foreign museums.

3. Related Cases: There are several cases that are similar in nature to this one. Mostly they deal with Eqyptian artifacts as well as ancient Grecian and Roman artifacts such as statues and bromzes that are held in the United Kingdom. Other related cases also include artifacts from the above mentioned countries, as well as from native american tribes that are held by private collectors. Links to these cases can be found below.

Mummy Trade and Their Return


4. Author and Date: Thomas De Stefano, May 7, 2003.

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: Disagreement and allegation. Thus far, there have been no landmark cases for courts to use to decide whether cultural relics should be returned to their country of origin. Countries such as Eqypt, Greece, and China have been in protracted negotiations with nations such as the U.K. and France, but have so far yeilded little tangible results. Several examples of specific cases are the disagreement between the UK and Greece over ownership of the Elgin marbles, and between Greece and Egypt over the ownership of artifacts such as mummies, and the Sphinx's beard. many of these examples also have case studies attached to them which can be accessed through the related cases link in the identification section.

6. Forum and Scope:International Agreements and Multilateral. This issue is not weighty or important enough on the current international scene to warrant any large multilateral forum. Therefore, negotiations have been largely bilateral between nations.

Typically, anything that would fall under "cultural heritage" status does recieve recognition from UNESCO. However, this recognition only applies to geographic areas. Therefore, places such as Longmen Grottoes, or other historical sites such as tombs are protecte. However UNESCO has no authority over the private trade in artifacts.

7. Decision Breadth: So far, no decision has been handed down. This has been mainly because of the lack of an overall authority to mediatate and hand over a binding decision regarding the dispute between nations over artifacts. However if a ruling was to favor returning the relics, the breadth could be very encompassing. After such a precedent was set, relics would have to be returned to any country, which would quickly empty many museums in the U.K., the U.S. and France.

8. Legal Standing: Treaty/Understanding. No laws or rulings have been handed down as of now. The only somewhat legal doctrine is the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums. This declaration was signed on December 10, 2002, by eighteen major museums and research institutes in Europe and America, including the British Museum and the Louvre Museum. This declaration opposes returning artifacts, especially ancient ones, to their county of origin. The declaration directly states that, "Over time, objects acquired-whether by purchase, or exchange of gifts - have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them.

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: East Asia

c. Geographic Impact: Yes, China

10. Sub-National Factors: These factors would include the return of artifacts to mainland China, as opposed to Taiwan. Although Taiwan is legally considered part of China, it operates on different systems, and already possesses many artifacts that were taken during the civil war.

11. Type of Habitat: Temperate

IV. Trade Clusters

12. Type of Measure: Culture

Trade of these products through private owners is unregulated
Museums in various countries are gaining revenue through display of products that some in China and Taiwan beleive should be rightfully displayed in their country of origin

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Direct

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: Yes. Culture

b. Indirectly Related to Product: No

c. Not Related to Product: Yes. Crime

d. Related to Process: Illegal smuglling and sale of historical artifacts. Storage and study of artifacts in a country that they did not originate in.

15. Trade Product Identification: Tourism, antiquities

16. Economic Data: Very little concrete data is available on this subject. It is hard to quantify what museums earn because of their collection of Chinese relics, and if these relics would have the same earning potential if they were housed in China. However, one source of revenue that can be gained is any fees that would have to be paid by either the indovidual or the institution in order to gain access to study these relics.

What can be somewhat estimated is the amount that China or Taiwan has to pay to reclaim its relics. An article printed in the UNESCO herald traced the stolen head of a Song Dynasty statue from mainland China all the way to a San Francisco auction House where it was to be sold for $600,000.

An auction house in England called Bonhams estimates that pieces from their Asia collection can sell for as little as 50 ($80.97), or as much as "many thousands".

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: Low

18. Industry Sector: Entertainment

Tourism and museums

19. Exporters and Importers: China and Many

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Culture

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species: N/A

22. Resource Impact and Effect: Low and Product. One major environmental impact is the destruction of excavation sites, and the accompanying artifacts. All too often, these sites will be looted because of the price of the artifacts that can be sold on the black market. Typically artifcats themselves will be damaged or destroyed, as it is common to decapitate statues in order to sell and transport them. Other relics that are not deemed sellable are usually tossed aside.

This can have devastating impacts, as the relics destroyed are not available for study. Along with this potential loss of knowledge, is a loss of Chinese culture. Mainland China has precious few artifacts, and can not afford to have them lost, stolen, or destroyed. A typical artifact that China is trying to reclaim and preserve are its ancient lacquerwares, such as this teabowl. While on the exterior it may seem plain, items such as teabowls are valuable because they are all unique. No two bowls, or tea sets are exactly alike. Often a particular artist may have one type of style that they employed. This style may have gained them a following in one of the noble houses, thus causing their work to be even more valuable.

Tongan-ware Tea Bowl, 12th-13th Century

23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and Thousands of Years. This problem should receive attention, as if it is not stopped the Chinese heritage could be lost. However, with the rate that new relics are being found, and the existence of old relics that survived throughout China's history, it is not a problem that will become critical in a shot period of time.

24. Substitutes: None

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: Yes. Cultural issues are heavily present in this case. One of the reasons for the demand to return the artifacts is a growing sense of the Chinese wanting to rediscover their once proud and rich ancient culture and civilization.

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: No.

27. Rights: No. Museums and private collectors are both worried that their collections may be taken from them. In terms of museums, this is very bad for business, but as they are invariably associated with the government they would have to give up the relics if a court decision was handed down. However, the relics are the private property of collectors, who would almost certainly file lawsuits if the relics were forcibly taken from them.

28. Relevant Literature:

The Peoples' Daily