How China can reclaim its lost cultural heritage

Peter Fuhrman proposes setting up a national fund to begin the systematic buy-back of the country’s most valuable artworks so they can be displayed around the country, for all Chinese to enjoy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 1:29pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 August, 2016, 6:31pm

I had the kind of childhood I wish more Chinese children could have. I grew up surrounded by exquisite artworks from China’s long and dazzling history. I can still remember as a child holding a Qing dynasty jade vase in my small hands. Cool to the touch even on a hot summer day, the vase was deeply incised with lotus blossoms.

My early encounters with Chinese antiques took place not in China but in my grandfather’s house in New York City. He was a successful businessman and developed a passion for Qing and Ming dynasty jade. I inherited his fondness for Chinese culture and art. In my office today in Shenzhen, eight jade pieces from my grandfather’s collection are displayed.

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Chinese antiques – jade carvings, imperial porcelains, paintings, Buddhist sculptures – are all deeply familiar to me. I have lived around them my whole life. This, sadly, is an experience too few Chinese in the People’s Republic will share. It’s not only that private collections are rare. While China has been on a museum-building spree this past decade, only a few of the country’s 3,500 museums have strong and extensive collections. Beijing’s Forbidden City Palace Museum does have some outstanding works of art. Most, though, are newly-built Xanadus with a limited display of works that would never make it into the collection of a minor provincial museum in Europe.

Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change

This is not only a problem but an unnecessary blemish, especially now that China has the money and global clout to do something about this. Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close, especially in smaller and less-crowded settings than the Forbidden City, the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change.

In the recent past, the Chinese government has made promises to bring more artistic masterworks back to the country where they were made. But this has mainly involved an occasional effort to halt auction houses from selling objects looted in 1860 from the Summer Palace in Beijing. The result is any object that can be traced back to the Summer Palace is now bought and sold privately, not at auction.

China should continue to try to right this historic wrong. But, in the meantime, something else can be done. China’s government should be out in the international auction market buying Chinese art treasures on behalf of the nation and then distribute these works among museums across the country. The goal: in coming years, every child in China will have frequent opportunities, as I had, to admire, study and be inspired by Chinese art.

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The range of Chinese artistic genius is probably more vast than any other civilisation, from Zhou dynasty bronzes cast 3,000 years ago, to Qin, Han and Tang terracotta objects, to fine Song ceramics along with Ming and Qing imperial porcelains, austere huanghuali furniture, florid cloisonné, Buddhist sculptures from the Sui dynasty, Song and Ming paintings, jade objects from Neolithic times all the way through to the 20th century.

The range of Chinese artistic genius is probably more vast than any other civilisation

Tragically, many of the valuable works of art that remained in China after 1949 were burned or smashed to pieces during the Cultural Revolution, an even more thoroughgoing artistic annihilation than we’ve witnessed recently from Islamic State and the Taliban. As a result, most of the world’s most valuable Chinese art is now outside the People’s Republic, in museums and private collections. It’s said that there are over 17 million Chinese antiques in the US and Europe alone. It’s time more of them made their way back to China and into public collections. Restitution, either voluntary or through international law, is not really an option. Few works other than those from the Summer Palace have a clear provenance showing they were illegally looted.

My humble proposal: the Chinese government could start and manage a national heritage fund to purchase for the nation items of cultural and artistic importance. It would accept cash donations from philanthropic Chinese at home and abroad. At the same time, I’d suggest that every state-owned enterprise voluntarily pay an annual dividend of 0.5 per cent of its profits every year into this national heritage fund. Last year, that tiny dividend would have brought in close to US$2 billion. Chinese private sector companies should be encouraged to match or exceed this pledge. I’m confident many would.

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Every year, about US$7 billion worth of Chinese antiques are sold at auction houses in mainland China, Hong Kong, London and New York. Virtually every object sold at the six major Christie’s and Sotheby’s China antiques auctions each year is better than what’s on view now in most Chinese museums.

A Chinese national heritage fund would be a big departure for the government. At the moment, about the closest thing it has is a national lottery. The money is meant to go to support sports and the underprivileged, but where it goes is often hard to trace. A report last year by the National Audit Office suggested that billions of renminbi were misappropriated and bribery rampant.

An art fund, especially if it raised money from public donations, would need to be transparently and professionally managed. Corruption is only one problem. The fund would also need to buy without igniting a big run-up in prices. The Getty Collection in Los Angeles faced a similar problem. It set out to acquire valuable art, and has had more than enough money to do so. It goes to great lengths to buy in ways that don’t cause a huge spike that would price everyone else out of the market.

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Wealthy Chinese are now active buyers of Chinese antiques at global auctions. Their impact is already felt worldwide. But Chinese plutocrats in general don’t donate to Chinese museums. They keep everything under their own lock and key. Trust of civic institutions doesn’t run deep. Indeed, when I mention to Chinese friends I intend to leave my grandfather’s collection to a museum in China, they often shake their heads disapprovingly. Art objects have been stolen from the Forbidden City. A Guangzhou museum curator was caught selling genuine objects for millions of dollars and replacing them with fakes.

Building museums has proved easier in China than populating them with museum-quality treasures. The sad result is it’s easier for school kids in Kansas City to see Song dynasty celadons than at the art museum in Hangzhou (杭州), the major city closest to where these luminous ceramics were made 800 years ago.

In the last five-year plan, it was stated that Chinese culture is the “spirit and soul of the nation” and a powerful force for the country’s development. It is a noble sentiment. Art is certainly among the most profound expressions of China’s soul and genius. It needs to become more of a living and familiar part in every Chinese child’s life.

Peter Fuhrman is chairman and CEO of China First Capital