Five thousand years of Chinese civilisation through 108 million relics

Four year survey finds that is just what is in the hands of the state. The number grows even more when considering overseas museums and private collectors

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2017, 10:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2017, 10:48pm

China has just completed an extensive four-year survey of the country’s “movable” relics, including porcelain, paintings and ancient books, and concluded that were has 108 million relics in hands of the state as of October, 2016, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said earlier last week.

The millions of artefacts across China – about 12 times of the number of works in the British Museum – can testify to the nation’s 5,000-year-old civilisation with many items surviving tumultuous centuries of war, disasters and invasions.

A 2008 nationwide survey of “unmovable heritages”, including buildings, grottos and graves, found 123,480 historical heritage sites in the country.

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While many Chinese are proud of being part of a coherent ancient civilization, modern Chinese society is also bidding farewell to its past with appalling speed– ancient towns and urban communities have been flattened for modern developments; villages with hundreds, if not thousands, of years history were demolished completely; and much of the country’s heritage, including most parts of the Great Wall, are left in ruins.

The pursuit of economic prosperity through urbanisation has often made protection of historical relics an afterthought, said Xu Guoqi, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. Examples include massive public works projects such as the construction of high-speed railways or the Three Gorges Dam, he said.

“Very valuable historical relics are there [by the dam]. If you destroy them, you destroy them once and for all, with no chance of getting them back,” Xu said.

The Cultural Revolution was literally a cultural holocaust in China
Xu Guoqi, professor of history, University of Hong Kong

The ruling Communist Party mistreated the country’s past in the early days of its rule, particularly during the “Destroy the Four Olds” campaign of the Culture Revolution, in which Red Guards destroyed countless relics and heritage sites, including the Cemetery of Confucius. The old city walls of Beijing, along with temples, mosques, pagodas and graves, were demolished.

“The Cultural Revolution was literally a cultural holocaust in China,” Xu said.

But thegovernment has taken steps since the 1980s, such as its recent survey archiving and classifying artefacts, to not only encourage protection of relics and heritage, but to spearhead reclamation efforts from museums and private collectors worldwide.

According to the survey result, all relevant information such origin was known about 64 million objects or immovable relics.

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More than half of the antiques were made after 1644, when the Qing Dynasty was founded. Interestingly, about 7 per cent of the relics were created in the People’s Republic period after 1949.

The survey covers historical artefacts under control of government agencies, public museums and state-owned enterprises across the country, but it didn’t cover private museums and collectors.

Many Chinese artefacts left the country during the chaotic years of war – including during the Opium wars – both through official and private channels. But the ownership of Chinese artefacts by foreign collectors has been a point of contention for both the Chinese government and many of its people. Suggestions that foreign collectors saved artefacts from destruction by the Red Guards is “a very painful aspect of this issue”, said Kim Dramer, a Chinese archaeology specialist.

Unesco previously estimated that 1.67 million Chinese relics were housed in museums in almost 50 countries. Those estimates increase tenfold for those in private collections.

China Poly Group, a largely-state owned corporation, has been at the forefront of the official buyback efforts, and the Cultural Relics Bureau also said in 2009 it would offer “reasonable compensation” to overseas collectors for Chinese artefacts.

Last year, Chinese authorities banned the auction of Chinese antiques that were stolen or illegally unearthed from China, noting the government’s priority in buying these antiques.

Chinese millionaires are major players in the auction houses around the globe
Kim Dramer, a Chinese archaeology specialist

Private collectors are also part of the reclamation process, particularly as the number of wealthy Chinese grows. For instance, a 14th century Chinese painting, namely the Five Drunken Kings Return on Horses, was auctioned in Beijing for more than 300 million yuan (HK$338 million) in December.

“Chinese millionaires are major players in the auction houses around the globe,” Dramer said. “There are currently numerous cases of private Chinese bidding on objects at auction. They view this as an act of patriotism … They are well aware that the international court system is not a quick way to re-acquire these objects. They’ve chosen their cheque books.”

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While the mass survey of “movable” relics is a good first step, Xu believes the Chinese government needs to place a greater importance on historical preservation when pursuing large public works projects, preventing people from digging up or looting historical items, and working with other stakeholders to conserve relics.