An exhibition displaying hundreds of priceless cultural relics that have been returned to the motherland from overseas is being held in the National Museum of China from Nov. 13 to 27.
Visitors who went there on the first day were surprised to find out that a famous treasure from Yuanmingyuan (or the Old Summer Palace), a bronze horse-head statue, was also displayed at the exhibition.
The horse-head statue has finally come back to China after being looted 159 years ago. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), foreign troops led by Britain and France invaded Beijing in 1860, burned Yuanmingyuan to ruins and ransacked countless Chinese treasures from the royal compound of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), including the 12 animal head statues representing the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.
The horse-head statue first appeared in Hong Kong in 2007 for a Sotheby’s auction. Hong Kong and Macao business tycoon Stanley Ho Hung-sun bought the statue at a price of HK$69.1 million (US$8.8 million) in September that year. After publicly exhibiting it in Hong Kong and Macao in the past years to promote patriotism and awareness for cultural relic protection, he then permanently handed it over to the National Cultural Heritage Administration in Beijing on Nov. 13, 2019.
“It is our family’s gift to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 20th anniversary of Macao’s return to the motherland and [represents our] best wishes for our country’s prosperity,” Pansy Ho Chiu-king, Stanley Ho’s daughter, said at the horse-head statue’s returning ceremony on behalf of her father.
Actually, this is not the first time that 98-year-old Stanley Ho has donated a priceless cultural relic to China. As an outstanding representative of compatriots, he donated another relic, the pig-head statue, to Beijing Poly Art Museum in 2003. With the great contribution made by generous donors like Ho, so far seven of the 12 animal-head statues lost from Yuanmingyuan have been returned to China. However, the whereabouts of the remaining five animal head statues are still unknown.
China is not the only country that suffers a lot from cultural relic rampage. Many other nations boasting ancient civilizations such as Greece share similar painful experiences. According to foreign media reports, Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni is requesting the British Museum’s Parthenon Museum to temporarily return the marble sculptures to Greece for the commemoration of the coming 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence in 2021.
To show its goodwill, Greece is even willing to send very important artifacts that have never left Greece to be exhibited in the British Museum in exchange. In response to the demand, the British Museum said the request would be considered only if Greece acknowledges British ownership of the marble sculptures, which were removed from the Parthenon in the 1800s, taken to England, and sold to the museum by Lord Elgin in 1816. Many netizens commented online that there is no valid justification for keeping any of the ancient artifacts stolen or procured from other countries and it is now the right time to return them to their original homelands.
The situation involving the marble sculptures in the Parthenon Museum has made the donations of Stanly Ho even more significant and respectable. On the one hand, Ho’s contribution will arouse patriotism among the Chinese people and encourage more wealthy Chinese from home and abroad to buy looted cultural relics from auctions and return them to the Chinese Government. On the other hand, Ho’s donations not only will enable today’s people to have a glimpse of the splendor of ancient China, but also marks the reconnection of a once-broken link in our collective historical memory.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)