OPINION-The Return of Bronze Horse Head to the Old Summer Palace

The return of a bronze horse head to China’s Old Summer Palace on December 1 signalled not only the successful Chinese effort at acquiring the lost treasures that were looted by foreign countries during the Qing dynasty, but also the determination of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to recover national treasures as a means to enhance the patriotic sentiments among the Chinese in the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau.

The Old Summer Palace was burnt down by the British and French forces during the second Anglo-French expedition to China in October 1860, leading to the tremendous lost of national treasures and artefacts of the Qing dynasty. During the Boxer rebellion in 1900, eight foreign countries invaded China, suppressed the Boxers and looted the Yuanmingyuan again. The famous twelve animal bronze heads, which were parts of a fountain in the Palace, were stolen by foreign soldiers and military officers.

As of 2020, only seven of the twelve bronze heads returned to China, including the heads of rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, horse, monkey and pig. 

In 2000, the China Poly Group invested HK$33 million to acquire the bronze heads of ox, tiger and monkey during an auction in Hong Kong. They are now stored in Beijing’s Poly Art Museum.

In 2003, the PRC government set up a special fund to rescue the looted national treasures overseas and to look for the whereabouts of the pig head. In September 2000, Stanley Ho, the Hong Kong and Macau business tycoon, donated 6 million yuan directly to the fund, which eventually acquired the pig head from an American collector and returned it to the Poly Art Museum.

In 2007, the horse head appeared in a Hong Kong auction held by Sotheby. The PRC National and Cultural Heritage Administration tried to intervene. Stanley Ho invested HK$69 million to acquire the horse head, which was later returned to the Old Summer Palace in 2019. The return of the horse bronze head in 2019 was timed in such a way as to celebrate the 70thanniversary of the PRC and the 20thanniversary of Macau’s return of its sovereignty and administration to China – a triple celebration pointing to the PRC’s rise and its reversal of Qing dynasty’s national humiliation.

In 2009, a French collector Pierre Berge sold the rat and rabbit heads in an auction where a Chinese businessman Cai Mingchao used EUR $31.4 million to buy it. However, later Cai refused to pay for it on the grounds that the two heads had been robbed from China. The rat and rabbit heads changed hands to the ownership of another French businessman, Francois Pinault, who was a boss of Christie’s which had put the heads to the auction, but who in 2013 announced to donate and return them to China. In June 2013, the PRC vice-premier Liu Yandong and Francois Pinault attended an opening ceremony of the display of the rat and rabbit heads in the PRC’s national museum.

At present, five bronze heads are missing – dragon, snake, goat, rooster and dog. In December 2018, the dragon head appeared in an auction in France and a Chinese businessman used EUR $2.4 million to acquire it, but its authenticity remains to be proven. A member of China’s Yuanmingyuan Academic Professional Association, Liu Yang, said in December 2018 that the previous owner of the dragon head had been a French official in China during the 19thcentury, thereby deducing that the bronze head was real. However, a Shanghai museum researcher, Zhou Ya, remarked that nobody knew what the dragon head looked like, and that there was no historical record at all. There was also a rumour saying that the dragon head was perhaps owned by a collector in Taiwan.

The PRC government used the recovery campaign of the bronze heads in three ways. First, the Old Summer Palace is now a national archaeological and heritage park so that it can be “a demonstration base for patriotic education,” according to the PRC National and Cultural Heritage Administration (NCHA). In 2000, the Beijing municipal government and the NCHA decided to redevelop Yuanmingyuan, where there would be a renovated museum, a history museum of the Qing dynasty and a research centre for tourists to appreciate the sites and understand the historical context. However, the complex renovation work has been hindered to some extent by the outbreak of Covid-19 since early 2020.

Second, the PRC government encourages patriotic businesspeople to donate to the Yuanmingyuan for its partial recovery work. For instance, in March 1993, a Hong Kong businessman Tsang Hin-chi donated 8 million yuan to Yuanmingyuan for the rebuilding work of its walls. In May 2019, Tsang attended an opening ceremony of the wall that connected three gardens. The Yuanmingyuan management expressed its deep gratitude to Tsang for his “high spirit of patriotism.”

Hence, the recovery of artefacts and the rebuilding work of the Old Summer Palace need the support and donation of Chinese businesspeople, including those from Hong Kong and Macau.

Third, some experts in the study of Yuanmingyuan said that only 20 percent of the lost national treasures are in the PRC while 80 percent of them remain in overseas countries, including foreign museums. As such, it is almost an impossible task to recover all the lost national treasures of Yuanmingyuan.

Recently, two factions composed of experts have debated over how Yuanmingyuan should be tackled. One faction has argued that the ruins of Yuanmingyuan should be retained to show to the Chinese people how foreign countries looted China under Qing dynasty during the era of imperialistic invasion and cultural plunder. The other faction, however, has contended that Yuanmingyuan should be renovated and restored to demonstrate the glamorous mixture of Chinese art, architecture, painting, sculpture, garden, pagodas and lakes.

Sandwiched in between the two factional arguments, the management of the Old Summer Palace has been conducting a partial recovery work, restoring some of the gardens and rebuilding some palace gates. In practice, it is not easy to rejuvenate all areas of the Old Summer Palace, for at least one area near the main palace gate has become a residential district. Moreover, while 86 sites require regular maintenance work, other sites are far more complex than conventional wisdom assumes, including 56 construction sites, 21 stone sites and 9 abandoned soil sites.

In 2015, a businessman in Zhejiang province, Xu Wenrong, invested 30 billion yuan in the building of a replica of the Old Summer Palace in Hengdian, Zhejiang. He questioned whether it would be possible or necessary to replicate Yuanmingyuan. Xu’s project was completed in 2016. His idea of rebuilding the Old Summer Palace was reportedly stimulated by a book written by French journalist, Bernard Brizay, whose The Sack of the Old Summer Palace published in 2003 argued that rebuilding the theme park would “wash away” the French military’s historical record of looting and burning the Yuanmingyuan. 

Victor Hugo, a famous French novelist and dramatist of the Romantic movement, wrote in November 1861 that the Old Summer Palace “was a kind of tremendous unknown masterpiece, glimpsed from the distance in a kind of twilight, like a silhouette of the civilization of Asia on the horizon of the civilization of Europe.” However, Hugo said that two bandits (soldiers from France and England) destroyed the Old Summer Palace. He even went so far as to write: “The crimes of those who lead are not the fault of those who are led; Governments are sometimes bandits, peoples never.” While the destruction of the Old Summer Palace was a national humiliation to the Qing dynasty, it was also a testimony to the brutality of wars and the criminality of cross-border looting of national treasures of the targeted and victimized state.

In a nutshell, the rise of the PRC has been accompanied by a campaign to recover the looted treasures of the Old Summer Palace. Such campaign has political and cultural significances. While the Chinese can be educated patriotically by understanding the tragic history of the Old Summer Palace, the recovery of national treasures and the partial restorative work requires the support and mobilization of patriotic Chinese businesspeople. The dilemma is whether Yuanmingyuan will be either retained with its ruins or restored to its old glamour and elegance. In the meantime, a middle-range solution is adopted; namely retaining its ruins for patriotic education while conducting partial restorative work.