The story of Cai Mingchao, the Chinese man who intentionally sabotaged the auction of several relics looted by foreign troops during the Opium Wars – by submitting a bid then refusing to pay – has attracted the expected attention in the media and blogosphere. Mainlanders are, according to less-than-scientific polls, well-pleased with Cai, as are state media, although some Chinese are concerned the move might injure China’s reputation. The China Association of Auctioneers’ chief lawyer Wang Fenghai believes Cai’s duplicity will cripple the ability of its other auctioneers to operate overseas. A less-than-scientific survey of Western opinion reveals that many consider Cai’s actions – and the domestic approval of same – to be dishonest, hypocritical (this exemplar of Chinese patriotism lives outside of China), and further evidence of lunatic Chinese nationalism.
This is unfair. First, Cai has bid and paid for legally exported Chinese relics in the past, and brought them back to China. Second, where he lives is irrelevant unless one posits that expats are incapable of patriotism. Third, while Chinese nationalism unquestionably has its ugly side, refusing to fork out millions for cultural artifacts looted by colonialists as they trashed the beautiful (Jesuit-designed) old Summer Palace seems pretty justifiable to me. Provenance is important. When European Jews sue to retrieve art stolen from their families by Nazis during the Holocaust, we don’t accuse them of foaming at the mouth, and the return of such art – without compensation – has been sanctioned by European courts time and again.
It seems to me that a little sympathy for China is called for. The quashing of Chinese nationalists’ opposition to foreign colonialism was not a laudable episode in the history of Europe. Nor was it negligible. Where do we think all this “lunatic nationalism” comes from? Are we really supposed to feel sorry for the estate of Yves Saint Laurent and Christie’s auction house?
On the other hand, the question of legal precedent is a thorny one. History cannot be fixed; the dead do not rise again. It is true that much of the world’s art currently residing in foreign collections and museums was taken at gunpoint, but how to restore it? How can we determine the proper heirs to the art works of extinct nations, governments, peoples, individuals? Despite mainland historiography, history is a classroom, not a court. However, in this case there is little argument. These relics were stolen from the government of China, and nobody denies this. We may wonder whether the CCP is the ideal successor to the Qing dynasty (although it is difficult to argue the communists were not an improvement over the Qing), but there is no case to be made that the private collector who used one of the bronze statues as a towel rack has a better claim.
However, the CCP’s new position as patron and defender of traditional Chinese art is an awkward one. The Party was only recently Chinese preservationists’ greatest enemy. The colonialist looters were pikers compared to the Red Guards, who destroyed countless, priceless relics outright in the name of revolution.