I was at the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (Yuanmingyuan) There was something there I did not remember seeing before.1 They have replicas of the zodiac heads out for you to look at! Seen up close they look like a rather scary trial scene.
The heads were once in one of the main fountains, and were looted by the British and French in 1860. The return of the zodiac heads was big news a while back. Lillian Li gives a nice overview of the story of the burning of the Summer Palace and the subsequent history of the site. Particularly under the Communists it became a go-to site to explain the evils of foreign imperialism, and I can still remember listening to schoolkids get lectures about the evils of foreigners there. The site has been changing some of late though. Part of it is that the Qing emperors are starting to look better and better. They used to be feudal oppressors, now they are great Chinese rulers who happen to have come from a minority nationality. This makes it easier to play up the site a little more. Part of it also is the zodiac heads. As they came from the Summer Palace, are easily identified, and show up in the collections of rich foreigners and foreign museums they are a great symbol of China’s stolen cultural patrimony. They make an even better symbol because the Chinese care about them more than foreigners do. They are really not very important as works of art, so foreigners are willing to give them up. The Elgin Marbles may be precious to Greece, but they are also among the crown jewels of the British Museum, so they are not going anywhere for now. With a bit of pressure, and cash, China can get the heads back. Also, China is not Greece. The two heads that China got back in 2013 were donated back by the head of Christie’s, a luxury brand that of course sells a lot in China.
I have not kept track of the exhibits at the Summer Palace and how and when they have changed, but my impression is that they are getting better. Better in the sense that the site is a place where China was despoiled by foreign imperialism, but also a site of cultural mixing of all sorts. There has been a lot of scholarship on this sort of thing, (see Lillian Li) and some of it is trickling into the exhibits. There is a lot more there than I remember on the Jesuits, and they have a series of before and after pictures showing the site in 1873, 13 years after the looting, and now, subtly making the point that a lot of what happened there happened after the looters left. A surprising number of things that have been restored to the site were found “on the campus of Beijing University.” You really could make a marvellous museum out of all the things the site has been over the years, and it is nice to see that they are at least making baby steps in that direction.
- I think I was last there in 2010? In any case they may have been there already and I just missed them [↩]