Wo Shi Laowai – Wo Pa Shui

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Christie’s To Auction Falling Cow!

Posted by MyLaowai on Monday, March 2, 2009

ChinaDaily, the propaganda mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, had this to say recently:

China fights to stop sale of looted relics.

China Tuesday demanded the auction of two looted historic bronze sculptures in Paris be canceled, saying it broke international conventions.

The auction seriously violates the country’s cultural rights and interests, and hurts national sentiment, it said.

A Paris court on Monday ruled against stopping the sale of the sculptures, rejecting an appeal filed by the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe.

The heads were taken from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace when it was razed by invading French and British forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.

“The State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) has formally informed the auctioneer of our strong opposition to the auction, and clearly demanded its cancellation,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a news conference.

“The Western powers have plundered a great amount of Chinese cultural relics including many precious items robbed from the Old Summer Palace. All these should be returned to China,” Ma said.

Potent stuff and, I’m sure you’ll agree, well worth further consideration. So here at MyLaowai HQ, we went to work finding out what all this hullabaloo is all about…

The Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty (or Manchu) ruled China from 1644 to 1912, but the really interesting thing is that they weren’t Chinese. The Qing were in fact Russians (specifically, descended from Jurchens, a Tungusic people who lived around the region now comprising the Russian province of Primorsky Krai). They didn’t like the Chinese, they didn’t trust the Chinese, and they most certainly didn’t see themselves as being even remotely related to the Chinese, who were after all nothing more than chattel in the eyes of the ruling Manchu. They famously forced all Han Chinese men to shave the front of their heads and comb the remaining hair into a queue, on pain of death. To the Manchu, this policy was a test of loyalty and an aid in telling friend from foe. For the Han Chinese, however, it was a “humiliating act of degradation” that went against their traditional Confucian values. The order was so deeply unpopular that it triggered strong resistance to Qing rule until at least the late 1640s. Hundreds of thousands were killed before all of China was brought into compliance. As a result of this ‘Queue Order’, to this day the Chinese hold a deep aversion to queues of any kind.

The Opium Wars. In 1793, the Emperor of China stated to the British Ambassador that China had no use for European manufactured products, and that as a consequence, Chinese merchants would only accept bar silver as payment for their goods. The British and French governments eventually sought alternative payment options, one of which was opium. The Chinese Government, which held a monopoly over the growing, production, refining, distribution, and export of this profitable drug, responded by banning foreigners from the Opium Trade altogether, and seizing or destroying stocks of opium held by foreign traders.. This led to a bit of a scrap (later referred to as the First Opium War) between the East India Company and the Chinese Government, which was resolved when the Chinese Government agreed to play fair and by international rules, and signed the Treaty of Nanjing. This is generally regarded as signalling the end of China’s isolation.

The Second Opium War came about as a result of international demands that China open it’s markets to foreign merchants, exempt foreign imports from illegal ‘internal transit duties’, stop acts of piracy, regulate the coolie trade, and give permission for foreign ambassadors to reside in Beijing. The Chinese Government completely rejected all such demands, and furthermore refused to honour the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing that it had signed. That was followed by an attempt to poison the entire European population of Hong Kong. However, local bakers, who had been charged with lacing bread with arsenic, bungled the attempt by putting an excess of the poison into the dough, in sufficient quantities to be detected. Criers were sent out with an alert, averting disaster. Enough was enough, and the international community responded by telling the Chinese to play fair and by the rules, or else face the consequences. All parties then signed the Tianjin Treaty, which essentially granted permission for foreigners to travel in China, and forced the Chinese Government to pay compensation to British merchants for the illegal destruction of their property. The Chinese, predictably, did not honour the terms of the Treaty they had just signed, and insisted the British meet for ‘peace talks’. When the British sent an envoy to these ‘peace talks’, he and his entire entourage were arrested and tortured, with some brutally murdered. The international community discussed the destruction of the Forbidden City in order to discourage the Chinese from using kidnapping as a bargaining tool, and to exact justice for the mistreatment of their hostages. The final decision was further motivated by the torture and murder of almost twenty Western prisoners, including two British envoys and a journalist for The Times. The Russian envoy Count Ignatiev and the French diplomat Baron Gros settled on the burning of the Summer Palaces instead, since it was “least objectionable” and would not jeopardize the treaty.

The ‘Looting’ Of The Old Summer Palace. There are a number of competing theories one must consider here. They are:
The “I was sold these goods by Chinese officials” Theory.
The “This stuff was stolen by Chinese citizens and later sold to foreigners” Theory.
The “All foreigners are to blame for everything, always” Theory.
Personally, I tend to subscribe to a combination of the first two of these Theories, based on the testimony of my Great Great [etc] Grandfather, Captain Angus MacLaowai of the Royal Engineers. He was actually there at the time and his will made note of the fact that the items from the Old Summer Palace he left to his family (and which I today possess), were legally purchased from Wang Xiansheng, a Chinese trader in Beijing. I’ll be damned if I give back something that was legally purchased, just because a Chinese trader stole them in the first place.

Putting It All Together. So, the original makers of the items in question were not Chinese to begin with, but Manchu. The war in question was fully justified and was in fact caused by the Chinese Government not keeping it’s word. And the items themselves were not stolen or looted, but were in fact legally purchased in good faith by innocent foreigners. Christie’s auction of the rat and rabbit bronzes did not break any international agreements and the pieces’ legal ownership has been “clearly confirmed.” It all seems pretty clear to me.

What China Didn’t Mention. There’s something curiously missing from the ‘fire and brimstone’ reporting from ChinaDaily, and that is the fact that the current legal owner of the bronze heads offered to give them to the Chinese Government, free of charge. That’s right folks: Pierre Berge (partner of designer Yves Saint Laurent) offered to return the pieces to China in return for a pledge to improve human rights. That’s it, just a little promise to start behaving responsibly and treat their own people a little bit better. The Chinese foreign ministry dismissed his offer as “just ridiculous.” The Chinese Government went on to say that it demanded the statues’ return, but the French government said it received no official request from Beijing, and the sale went ahead. Berge is offering the proceeds to fight AIDS, while the Beijing-based Global Times is accusing France of “hurting China’s feelings”, as usual.

A Late Twist. A Chinese man said Monday he was the mystery collector behind winning bids for two imperial bronzes auctioned at Christie’s over Beijing’s objections, and that he made bogus offers to protest any sale of the looted relics.

Auction house owner Cai Mingchao said he made the $36 million in bids for the bronze rat and rabbit heads by telephone last week when the pieces were auctioned in Paris as part of a collection owned by the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent.

“What I need to stress is that this money cannot be paid,” Cai told a news conference in Beijing. “At the time, I was thinking that any Chinese would do this if they could…”.

Cai, an art collector and expert on relics, is the owner of Xinheart, an auction company in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen.

And Now, Another Auction. As the current legal owner of a number of items that originated from the Old Summer Palace at the time the Chinese were taught their lesson, I am well within my rights to dispose of the goods in any manner I see fit. I am offering one of these priceless family heirlooms to the New Beijing Museum, free of charge, in exchange for a pledge by the Chinese Government to improve human rights. The piece in question is a bronze that the MyLaowai Family refer to as the Falling Cow.

The ball’s in your court now, chaps.

Falling Cow Auction. Bidding Starts Soon.

9 Responses to “Christie’s To Auction Falling Cow!”

  1. justrecently said

    They’ll fall over each other to get it back.

  2. MyLaowai said

    If I don’t manage to upset some locals with this post, I’ll hang up my spurs.

    But seriously, it’s all true. [snigger snigger]

  3. johnsmith9876 said

    Word of caution: Only accept bids that are backed by letters of credit from some western banks or similar instruments, especially if the bidder is Chinese. Trust the bankers, not the Chinese bidders.

  4. MyLaowai said

    True enough, except… Trust the bankers?

    Any other [better] ideas?

  5. MyLaowai said

    *** Update ***

    I have received an offer from a Liu Xiansheng of Changsha, who offers not to impale my children on bamboo spikes in the traditional manner if I give my property to China without extracting a pledge from the Communist Party to improve human rights, which he considers “ridiculous”.

    Your offer is noted, Liu.

    Next, please…

  6. Meursault said

    Well, if we follow the Chinese line that all artifacts should be returned to their origin of production, then it is absolutely right that these bronze heads are in Europe. After all, it was western Jesuit missionaries that made them and the surrounding palace:


  7. Anon said

    “Hurt national sentiment?” Oh no, did they finally figure out that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” made them sound like a bunch of whiners? Well, it’s not like we can’t find other things to laugh about.

  8. Hunxuer said

    This was one of your more memorable and creative posts (though all backed by fact and based on evidence, I know!).

    Here’s another example of the resistance to the queue…

    Police stop Shanghai stampede for free tourist vouchers

    Police stepped in on Sunday when chaos erupted as hundreds of Shanghai residents scrambled for 30,000 cash vouchers able to be spent by tourists in spots in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, the Shanghai Youth Daily reported yesterday. Masses lined up outside two branches of Hangzhou Bank early in the morning for a 2pm voucher handout. Police halted the exercise at the Huangpu district branch when people rushed the banks. The incident was a repeat of chaos in Shanghai last week when the city of Changzhou, in Jiangsu province, tried to distribute 1 million yuan (HK$1.13 million) worth of similar vouchers.

  9. Enrico said

    Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

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