Antiquities & Archaeology

As economic development lays bare China's archaeological heritage, the government struggles to keep up with protecting the past

The Three Gorges dam and a number of smuggling stories highlight the difficulty of preserving the country's heritage


The protection of China's cultural relics now tops the agenda for the nation's already beleaguered archaeologists. As if the ravages of time and the elements were not sufficient, two relatively new threats are now stretching Chinese ingenuity and inadequate financial and technical resources to the limit. Both of these threats - the large-scale looting and smuggling of cultural artefacts and a boom in urban construction - can be traced to China's recent staggering economic development. Although the death penalty is now mandatory for the most serious cases of theft or smuggling, many still believe the rewards from a booming market are worth the risk. While the "leaking" of the nation's cultural heritage remains a serious problem, however, the time limits imposed on archaeological exploration by infra-structural and commercial construction are now causing the greatest concern.

After a somewhat belated start, a considerable amount of work has now been done to salvage and protect sites endangered by the infamous Three Gorges project on the Yangtzi River, and the nation's history museums and cultural research institutes hope to finalise their overall strategy for the area by March this year. Meanwhile, investigations are progressing on the site of a proposed factory in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, where archaeologists recently discovered a group of 384 tombs dating to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), the largest collection of tombs from this period so far unearthed; another large group of tombs from the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 24) was discovered in July 1995 while a survey was being conducted for the proposed Beijing-Zhengzhou Railway in Wangdu county, Hebei province.

Even highly developed areas such as Guangzhou in Guangdong province continue to yield surprises, adding to China's seemingly insurmountable task of preserving cultural relics. While surveying the site of a twenty-five storey telecommunications building in the centre of the city, archaeologists recently discovered the remains of imperial palaces dating back to the Nanyeu kingdom (203-111 BC) established by Zhao Tuo in the early Western Han dynasty. The remains have yielded unusual inscribed architectural materials, coins and a basin with stone patterns similar to those found in ancient Greek architecture but previously rarely seen in China. The site of a tomb belonging to the second king of Nanyue, Wen Di, which was discovered in 1993, also in central Guangzhou, has already been designated as a museum. It will be interesting to see if cultural factors outweigh the economic returns from urban construction in the case of the newly-discovered palaces.

While the smuggling of antiques is denounced and increasingly policed, Chinese museums and collectors have in the past been too short of cash, and often too morally affronted, to consider buying back the national heritage. That is until last year, when several overseas collectors exhibited their Chinese pieces on mainland soil without fear of their collections being confiscated. New York collector Bob Ellsworth offered some of his fans, calligraphy and other antiques at auction in Beijing, while Hong Kong dealers Charles Godfrey and Charlotte Horstmann exhibited pieces from the Godfrey collection of Chinese jades in Beijing before their sale at auction in Hong Kong. While legal guidelines covering such activities have yet to be formalised, it would appear that they are being officially encouraged, probably in the hope that at least some of the antiquities will be "donated" to the nation.

Perhaps the most alarming illustration of the sorry state of cultural relics' protection was provided by an exhibition of ancient weapons from the collection of the young Taiwanese C.C. Wang. The exhibition was held in the Beijing Palace Museum as part of the seventieth anniversary of the transformation of the Forbidden City into a museum. These superb examples of Zhou and Han dynasty weapons were superior to anything in Chinese collections on the mainland, but unfortunately, their provenances were unclear. However, archaeologists rejoiced at this homecoming, firmly convinced that the pieces had initially been plundered from mainland excavations or unexcavated tombs, and successfully smuggled abroad. Many of these pieces, such as the sword of King Gou Jian of the ancient southern kingdom of Yue, have a near legendary status in China's annals.

In September last year, the director of the Shanghai Museum, Ma Chengyuan, heard that a very valuable sword with an intact lacquer scabbard and belonging to the son of King Gou Jian, Zhezhi Yuci (r.464-459), was in the hands of a Hong Kong antiques dealer. Since this was only some four months after the sword had been excavated from a site in Hubei province, Ma alerted the Zhejiang Provincial Museum. Although in ancient times Zhejiang was the centre of production of such swords, known traditionally as "ganjiang" and "moye", not a single example could now be found in the province. According to Cao Jinyan, deputy director of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, the original discovery of the sword in Hubei, rather than in Zhejiang, indicates that the piece was part of the spoils of war when Chu (Hubei) was victorious over Yue. The inscription recording the name of the owner is in "niaochong" ("bud and insect") script and is inlaid with turquoise. The handle of the sword is bound with woven "hou", a type of silk twine, and of the 1,000 or so known examples of ancient weapons from Yue, this is the only piece with this feature.

In October, Ma Chengyuan flew to Hong Kong in an attempt to persuade the dealer to sell the piece back to a Chinese museum. In spite of numerous lucrative offers from Taiwanese and Japanese collectors, he agreed to hold the 2,400 year-old piece until 31 October and to offer it before this date to a mainland collection. The price? HK$1 million, far below its estimated value. Ma promptly contacted Cao Jinyan, urging him to save the sword from the international marketplace before the deadline.

Raising the purchase price was, however, no easy matter. Local dailies carried touching stories of the sick and elderly donating their last pennies from a sense of regional and national pride, but with only hours to go the museum was still unable to raise the funds. On the evening of 30 October, Zhejiang Television broadcast an urgent appeal for donations. The Shanghai Museum made an interim loan available to the museum for the purchase, but eventually the Hangzhou Iron and Steel Corporation, a government-owned conglomerate, provided the funds available. Happily, after a false alarm concerning the sword's authenticity, this important artefact is now back in its original home in Zhejiang province.

Since 1992, a group of Taiwanese collectors, styled the Qingwan Yaji (roughly translated as the Qing Curio and Treasure Collectors), has also dedicated itself to preserving and exhibiting Chinese relics from the last imperial dynasty. In a recent article in Beijing Youth News (29 December 1995), sponsored by Guardian Auctions, Nie Chongzheng of the Beijing Palace Museum discusses a bronze representation of a horse's head included in one such exhibition held to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the Palace Museum.

The head is 38.1cm in height and distinctively Western and realistic in conception. A member of the Qingwan Yaji group has a matching bull's head, not exhibited in Beijing, which is 36.9cm in height. The heads were purchased in 1989 at auction in London, although both were originally housed in the Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) complex on the north-western fringes of Beijing. They once formed part of a clockwork fountain designed by the European architects and artists responsible for much of the palace decoration. The decorative bronze heads stood on two of the twelve human torsos made of stone that flanked a central stone conch in the middle of an artificial lake. The twelve figures served a multiple symbolic function, representing the twelve earthly branches and the twelve horary animals that traditionally constituted the twenty-four hours of the Chinese day.

In 1860, the Summer Palace complex was razed by an Anglo-French expeditionary force led by the notorious Lord Elgin, and during the destruction most of the palace's treasures, including the twelve statues, disappeared. Two of the heads of the horary beasts, a monkey and a pig, surfaced at a Sotheby's auction in New York in 1987, but neither the identity of their present owner nor the whereabouts of the remaining eight pieces are known.

Susan Dewar is a director of Art Text (Australia and Hong Kong). She lives in rural Hebei province, north China.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Economic development is laying bare China's archaeological past'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 56 February 1996