PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am

Guo Daiheng is unlikely to pack a fedora hat, leather flying jacket and 10-foot bullwhip when she embarks on a global expedition this month. But the unassuming history professor from Beijing's Tsinghua University will need to cram into her suitcase as much guile and determination as that possessed by fictional adventurer Indiana Jones if she is to find what she is seeking.

Guo is the first member of a 12-strong team to be sent by the mainland to the far corners of the world on a mission impossible: to track down the estimated 1.5 million antiquities looted by British and French armies before and during the 1860 sacking of the Yuanmingyuan, popularly known as the Old Summer Palace, in northern Beijing.

Armed with guidebooks and back copies of auction-house catalogues, the investigators will travel to more than 50 countries and trawl through scores of museums known to possess the silk, porcelain, jade, shrines, carvings and other ceremonial furniture and fittings that decorated the Qing dynasty imperial seat.

That will be the easy part.

Much harder will be tracking down the vast majority of antiquities housed in thousands of unknown and very private collections, big and small. Unlike those in the great museums of London, Paris, New York, Moscow, Berlin and Rome, access to these treasure troves is rarely, if ever, granted. The only time these objects see the light of day is when secretive sellers and buyers dotted across the globe swap millions of dollars to own a piece of violent diplomatic history.

Guo's first stop will be the Library of Congress, in Washington, and then the Harvard University Library. Part of her research will involve studying photographs of the palace taken shortly after the site had been torched by the Anglo-French force.

The pictures, some of which have never been made public, capture 'the wild spirit of beauty which continues to dwell in that scene of desolation', according to a New York Times China correspondent who saw them in 1873, before they were squirrelled away. While this album is a modest find and unlikely to yield many clues, it is symbolic, representing the first small step on an epic journey for the mainland as it seeks to fully recover from the shame of foreign oppression.

Mainland school children are told the sacking of the palace was the worst act of humiliation by foreigners. Even though it was in retaliation for the execution of almost 20 European and Indian prisoners, few would argue. Foreigners at the time were appalled. French writer Victor Hugo wrote a long and savage letter a year after the sacking and called on France to return its share of the loot.

'Two robbers breaking into a museum, devastating, looting and burning, leaving laughing hand-in-hand with their bags full of treasures; one of the robbers is called France and the other Britain,' he wrote.

The plunder ranks as one of the world's worst cases of Elginism - the term for cultural vandalism named for the seventh Earl of Elgin, who took the Parthenon Marbles from the Acropolis, in Athens, Greece, to London. Controversy ran in the family. It was Elgin's son, James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, who gave the order to burn the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, as the Summer Palace was also known, on October 18, 1860. At the time he was the British high commissioner to China and tasked with forcing the stubborn Middle Kingdom into more trade with the West.

Elgin ordered the demolition to punish the court of Emperor Xianfeng for daring to kidnap foreign envoys from the invading nations. Earlier, in August, a British and French contingent led by envoys Harry Parkes and Henry Loch had been sent to Beijing, under a flag of truce. During the second day of discussions, the envoys and their Indian guards were kidnapped by the Chinese. Parkes and Loch were released but others were tortured and killed.

French troops marched into Beijing on October 6, surrounded the palace and began looting. British troops soon arrived and joined in what was described as gleeful and furious pillaging.

Officers filled their pockets and arranged transport for the heavier pieces. Ignorant of the true worth of their loot, some French soldiers were reported to have emptied a trunk of fine silks onto the slippery courtyard to give their horses traction.

Elgin ordered the palace to be torched. It reputedly took three days for the mainly wooden complex to burn.

Locals then took their turn, picking off what remained among the smouldering ruins.

Of course, often overlooked is one of history's ironies: the theft of the Summer Palace objects saved them from destruction by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

Guo says she and her colleagues are under no illusions about the size of their task. Museums in Britain, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Austria and the United States that document the objects they house with serial numbers and other details, account for 10 per cent, at best, of what the investigators are seeking.

'We hope all those who care about the artefacts, wherever they are in the world, will provide us with information,' says Guo. 'My approach is purely academic. But, of course, the need to fill in the blank areas of our history is a matter of national pride.'

When asked whether Beijing will ask for any of the artefacts to be returned, she answers, 'All I can say is our quest will prove to be fruitful.'

The team will report to Chen Mingjie, the director of the Summer Palace, which is now known as Yuanmingyuan Park and is a tourist attraction. He notes the treasure hunt is not government backed.

'We are doing this to build cultural and academic relations between us and international museums and private collectors,' he insists. 'There needs to be a public record for the Chinese people. There is no political purpose to our investigation.'

That such relationships need strengthening is not in doubt given the controversy that has surrounded recent high-profile, multimillion-dollar auctions of palace artefacts.

In February, the bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat from a palace fountain that featured the 12 zodiac animals were auctioned by Christie's in Paris as part of French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent's estate. A Chinese collector won the bid but then refused to pay the Euro31.5 million (HK$367 million) selling price for the pair. His sabotage of the sale was widely applauded by the Chinese public and already-strained diplomatic relations between Beijing and Paris were stretched further.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage responded to public pressure and reprimanded the auction house and the French. Film star Jackie Chan slammed France for allowing the sale to go ahead: 'It was looting yesterday. It is still looting today,' he said.

Last month, Sotheby's bore the brunt of mainland criticism when a green jade seal belonging to Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1795) fetched GBP3.6 million (HK$46 million) - six times its estimate - following frantic bidding by eight competing collectors.

The government may not be officially backing the mission but a spokesman from the State Administration of Cultural Heritage says, 'This is necessary research by the Yuanmingyuan institution to achieve their academic goals. It also reflects the Chinese public's concern over the lost relics. We encourage Chinese institutions and scholars to carry out this research and we hope the foreign museums and libraries understand and support the mission.'

Finding antiquities has become compulsory viewing on the mainland. A camera crew from state-run China Central Television will follow the team so as 'to keep the domestic audience posted about their progress', says Chen.

Will the Summer Palace be asking for any of the relics to be returned?

Chen pauses. 'That is another topic. This is not our mission at this time. We are undertaking research. However, we do hope some previously unknown relics might surface and be returned to our country during our investigation.'

The mission is being bankrolled by an unlikely backer: one of China's leading baiju (rice wine) distilleries, located in the Mianzhu region of Sichuan province. The president of Jiannanchun Group, Qiao Tianming, is a keen historian. His company set up a baiju museum in 2003.

A nip of their sponsor's firewater might be required when the researchers make their way up the windswept hill from the River Medway in Chatham, southern England, the naval dockyard from which Queen Victoria's navy set sail to ensure the sun never set on the British Empire. It was up the steep hill that sappers from the Royal Engineers carried a Summer Palace imperial couch swiped by young captain Charles 'Chinese' Gordon, who had it installed in the regimental officers' mess.

Gordon, a revered Victorian superhero who met his death fighting as a general in Sudan, in 1885, took part in the sacking when he was 27.

He wrote in his diary of the plunder: 'We went out and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions [British pounds]. We got upward of ?48 apiece prize money ... I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did to the Palace.

'You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.'

In 1993, Gordon's 'thrown', made of lacquered wood decorated with carved dragons, was moved to the Royal Engineers Museum nearby, where it now sits behind a glass screen for public viewing. On it are placed a mishmash of 27 other artefacts taken from the palace, including ornate roof tiles and an incense burner made out of a human skull. Most were small enough to be stuffed into tunic pockets or kit bags.

This modest exhibition is mainly inspected by military buffs and coach loads of rowdy schoolchildren, yet it represents the largest public collection of its kind on display in Britain.

'We groan when we read Gordon's diary. Why did he have to say he had done well from plundering the palace?' says curator Rebecca Nash.

Displays show the many elaborate presents given to Gordon when he became commander of the 3,500-strong 'Ever Victorious Army', a militia raised to defend Shanghai and which suppressed the Taiping uprising.

'We would welcome any researchers from China and would readily help them record what is here,' says Nash. 'This collection is probably the only one where a call for their return would be wholly supported by their provenance records. They came directly from the Summer Palace.

'As to any of them being returned, we would follow the advice of the British Museum and the legal stance on restitution.'

The British Museum, in central London, houses the world's foremost collection of cultural history. It contains more than seven million objects, gathered over 250 years.

For decades, the trustees have been doggedly fending off robust challenges from governments calling on Britain to hand back cultural treasures. Any Chinese who calls for the return of the 30 or so objects believed to have come from the Summer Palace will have to line up behind Greece, seeking the return of the Parthenon Marbles, and Egypt, which is asking for the return of the Rosetta Stone.

If Hu Jintao were to ask, for example, for the eighth-century copy of the earliest and finest painting attributed to artist Gu Kaizhi (AD345-406), The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, which is said to have hung in the Summer Palace, would the British Museum oblige?

'The short answer is no, from both a legal and ideological standpoint,' spokeswoman Hannah Boulton says. She cites the 1753 and 1963 British Museum acts, which state that items cannot be 'deaccessioned' from the collection. She also cites the 1970 Unesco convention on cultural property. This allows countries that have signed up to the act to request the return of items - but only those antiquities taken after that date.

'The Chinese collection, like the Parthenon Marbles and Rosetta Stone, are now part of a world collection for all to see. This is the main argument for retaining such items here. There is nowhere else where the world's human culture is so widely on show,' says Boulton.

The British Museum is a secular organisation, run by a board of trustees independent of the government. This guarantees the conservation of, and public access to, the collection, says Boulton.

'We recognise there were discrepancies as to how some of the pieces were collected,' she says. 'But they now have to be seen in a world context. We're happy to have the objects go out on loan, and we constantly do this. And we would most certainly welcome and assist the team from the Summer Palace in their research.'

Boulton hands over a list titled 'Objects from or possibly from Yuanmingyuan'.

'There is no clear-cut evidence that The Admonitions was from the Summer Palace. It changed hands many times before entering the museum,' Boulton says of the scroll's absence from the list.

Of the listed items, only one - a jade book consisting of six leaves beautifully engraved with a poem in elaborate characters - is on display in the China gallery. The other pieces are kept in storage and displayed by rotation.

Chongqing MBA student Cao Yihe has taken time off from her course at York University, in northern England, to visit London. She peers into the cabinet to read the jade book.

'I cannot read the characters. It is a poem but I cannot understand it,' says Cao. 'I am aware foreign invaders stole much of our nation's heritage but they are better off here. We have nothing like this museum in China. They belong to China but I don't think they should be returned.'

London's Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) keeps one of the world's 'most important and comprehensive collections of Chinese art, dating from 3000BC to the present time'. But only four of its 30 items 'believed to have come' from the Summer Palace are on show.

A large porcelain icebox, once used to cool the imperial court during Beijing's hot summers, was, like most of the objects, given by a donor with a European name.

'Should there be enquiries from the Chinese, the V&A would be very happy to facilitate any research,' says spokeswoman Olivia Colling. 'We have frequent and wide-ranging contacts with China and are currently working with the National Museum of China on a catalogue of our Chinese collections.'

Returning any objects is not an option but a spirit of sharing is, says Colling. 'The V&A is lending a large number of objects to the World Expo Museum in Shanghai next year.'

One of the biggest Summer Palace collections is held at the Mus?e Chinois de l'Imp?ratrice, at the Chateau de Fontainebleau Museum, near Paris, but repeated e-mails and telephone calls requesting information about the objects went unanswered. Hugo, who 148 years ago wrote, 'I hope that a day will come when France, delivered and cleansed, will return this booty to despoiled China', would have been disappointed.

International auction house Sotheby's says back catalogues of sales can offer clues to the whereabouts of palace artefacts.

One of the leading authorities on artefacts looted from China in 1860 and 1900 - when what little remained at the Summer Palace was taken, during the Eight-Nation Alliance invasion - is James Hevia, a Chicago University professor of international history. He believes the quest is the start of a wider effort to reclaim what was stolen.

'My own feeling is that the recent sale of the animal heads in Paris and the attention it received has triggered this quest by the Chinese,' he says.

Hevia, who has written a book detailing the 1860 looting, says the research effort is likely to fail.

'The Chinese have a daunting task. Any effort to catalogue all of the artefacts taken might be called quixotic because the British burnt the Summer Palace records. They are impossible to track down. Their point of origin has either been erased or they've picked up new provenance as they circulated in and out of the hands of private collectors,' he says.

He says the researchers might need to pack maps of India, too.

'At least a third of the British army was from India, which suggests some pieces may be in the hands of the successor regiments in the Indian army and regiments from Pakistan [then part of British India]. No one has reported that yet.'