I lived a few blocks away from the Old Summer Palace for almost a year. The current two bronze statues which were looted from the royal garden reminded me my visits there. Yuan Ming Yuan (“Gardens of Perfect Brightness”) , situated in the north of the Capital, is next to the two campuses of the most prestigious universities in China: Peking University and Tsinghua University.
But back in 2001, the area was still under developed. Unlike other tourism spots, the Old Summer Palace was always a place of solitude. For most of the visitors, there are so many splendid architectural treasure within the city that to spend a day in an empty park with nothing but relics in the northern outskirt of the city did not seem to be appealing.
Boating in the enormous Fuhai Lake (Sea of Fortune) was pleasant in Summer. The rolling hills and curving banks were designed to mirror the rhythms of the nature which is the essence of the traditional Chinese paintings. Early mornings welcome a lot of joggers who are local residents with annual pass. A lot are actually westerners who work in the universities.
But the real scenery lacks. Most Chinese visitors are looking for the remains of the European style architecture designed by Jesuits Giuseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoist, who were hired to provide spice to the over als design. But all they could find are a few crumbling stones and one or two pictures indicating what they should look like. Ironically, the European style architecture takes up only 5% of the whole design, but after the fire set out by the British and French army in 1860, all Chinese architecture which were made of wood were burned into ashes.
Proposals to restore the royal gardens in the past couldn’t pass because the government thinks restoration would destroy its historical meaning. The “scar”, at once the most beautiful place, would remind the future generation that “lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks”.
The special status of the Old Summer Palace makes the bronze statues originally from the garden a touchy and sensitive topic for most Chinese. Like Forbidden City, before it was burned, ordinary people could not get into the garden. It represents a striking paradox in modern China: Even though feudalism is despised and eliminated, the royal treasures are revered. To think such treasures once looted are now for sale in western world does cast shadows in minds of Chinese people.
But neither the 1970 UNESCO Convention nor the Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects is retro-active. (The latter states the case must be claimed within 50 years of theft.) Thus from a legal perspective, the transaction which is going to happen in two days should be clear of intervention and the future whereabouts of the two statues are not in the hands of those Chinese lawyers group who tried to block the auctioning of the lots.
There is no price estimation for the two lots which will be auctioned at the end of the last day in Christie’s. But concensus is that they would fetch at least 10 milllions dollars each. The first day’s auction brought more than 260 millions dollars even though stock market today went down again. If they are sold at an astounding price to a non-Chinese buyer, I would not be too sad. At least, they are appreciated.