Culture to be reclaimed

By Huang Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-6 20:05:02

Former residence of Zhou Zuoren in Xicheng district, Beijing. Zhou's family are trying to reclaim a manuscript written by Zhou confiscated from the residence during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) through legal means. Photo: CFP
Former residence of Zhou Zuoren in Xicheng district, Beijing. Zhou's family are trying to reclaim a manuscript written by Zhou confiscated from the residence during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) through legal means. Photo: CFP


Zhou Jiyi, 63, is not giving up on reclaiming a manuscript written by his grandfather that went missing in a "search and confiscation" campaign during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), despite recently failing to prevent the manuscript being sold at auction.

On May 12, at an auction held by China Guardian Auctions Co., Ltd, a manuscript written by Zhou Zuoren (1885-1967), a renowned essayist and translator, was sold for 1.84 million yuan ($288,700).

The work is an 8,700-word treatise on developments in Japanese fiction given by Zhou at Peking University in July 1918 and then published in New Youth, an influential Chinese magazine of the time.

"I've decided to resort to lawsuits. The manuscript was illegally taken away from our home by Red Guards, mainly high school students, in 1966. Now we want it back," Zhou told the Global Times.

Zhou plans to submit the indictment this week to the People's Court in Beijing's Dongcheng district, where the auctioneer is located, after having gathered written authorizations from other legitimate inheritors.

"We will file against the auctioneer. Then the bidder and the seller will also be held liable," he noted. "It's time to solve the problems left over from history."

Smash and grab

August 2, 1966, is a day Zhou will never forget. Scores of students of his age or younger, wearing red armbands, suddenly crowded into the courtyard he lived in with his parents and grandparents. They took away nearly all the books and valuable objects, including the manuscript, Zhou said.

Zhou, then 17, had been impressed by what he had heard about the treatise. Zhou Zuoren's brother was none other than Zhou Shuren, better known as Lu Xun and considered to be one of the fathers of modern Chinese literature. Lu Xun himself had edited and annotated the manuscript.

"Grandfather was very rigorous about his works. For a manuscript to be preserved, he would bind it up carefully and keep it on shelves," Zhou recalled.

In reality, Zhou's was just among millions of families whose property was taken away or destroyed during the cultural havoc. Under the slogan of "smash the four olds" - old ideology, old culture, old habits and old customs - people across the country, especially high school students, were encouraged to search houses and confiscate property.

The targets spread from "class enemies," including those labeled as capitalist roaders, traitors and left-wingers, to businessmen, writers, entertainers and teachers. Their treasures, books, discs, cultural relics and even houses were confiscated and destroyed.

Statistics show that up to 10 million houses were searched and confiscated in the early stages, including 114,000 in Beijing and 84,222 in Shanghai. Between June and October in 1966, the cash, deposit and public bonds confiscated by Red Guards were valued at 42.8 billion yuan. A further 150,000 kilograms of gold and more than 10 million antiques were rounded up, and over 39 million "undesirables" were driven out of city centers.

Some collectors even destroyed objects and relics themselves before the arrival of the Red Guards.

"At that time, panic nearly overwhelmed every family. Everyone feared being singled out," Wang Jingwen, better known as Zhi An, the son of Wang Shida or Sha Ou, a renowned poet, told the Global Times.

Each family member was arranged to destroy potentially incriminating items upon learning the Red Guards would be coming. 

"The heels of high-heeled shoes were chopped off, qipao were torn down, pictures taken with foreigners were burnt. My job was to smash all the disc plates, including symphonies by distinguished musicians like Tschaikovsky," Wang recalled of when he was only 7 years old.

Soon, several groups of Red Guards came into his courtyard. Their neighbor Cao Jinghua, a noted translator and educator, also had his house searched and items confiscated.

Evening the score

After the Gang of Four was jailed, the central government started to correct those errors. Regulations were issued to order the return of property confiscated during that period.

A regulation released in 1983 by the Beijing municipal government urged to return confiscated houses. According to the document, the government took over more than 80,000 private houses or 510,000 rooms, accounting for one-third of the total housing in the city at the time.

In June 1984, the central government sought further efforts to return the confiscated property, or compensate for items destroyed or missing.

However, this attempt to correct history went poorly as many items were destroyed, some went to museums and libraries and many were sold overseas by local authorities with some ending up in the hands of those in power.

Kang Sheng, a senior political leader connected with the Gang of Four, reportedly had appropriated more than 1,000 priceless treasures, ranging from bronze ware dating back 3,000 years and items belonging to great Chinese generals and writers.

According to History Reference magazine, by the end of 1984, nearly 150,000 kilograms of gold and 350,000 kilograms of silver had been paid back, according to prices set by banks. However, only 3.5 million of over 11 million antique pieces, including scrolls, paintings, jewelry and jade ware, were returned along with 2.64 million of 12 million books and 55 percent of confiscated houses.

"The return and compensation sometimes were simply a formality," Wang said, citing stories from his neighbors that a chopping knife was returned instead of a jeweled sword and a fake precious stone replaced a real cat's eye diamond.

"My father went to ask back for the books that had been taken away, but was told that they had all been burnt by Red Guards," Wang said. But to his dismay, he recently discovered that some of the books were sold in markets, or even turned up on online book stores.

"One friend brought me a book he bought online. I recognized it as belonging to my father's collection. My father signed his name on each book he collected," he noted.

Zhou said he has managed to claim back part of his family's property, but the majority remains untraced.

In early May, to his joy and surprise, Zhou found that his grandfather's manuscript still existed from a news report. But, it was claimed to be from the collection of Tang Tao (1913-92), a scholar and writer, and was to be auctioned.

Lack of proof

Zhou soon appealed to the auctioneer, asking for the sale to be cancelled. However, his demand was rejected, allegedly because he could not provide solid proof that the manuscript was taken away in the circumstances he described.

Deng Zemin, Zhou's lawyer, said the Guardian Auctions Company had misled the public.

"The auctioneer and the client should provide evidence that the manuscript belonged to them, not Zhou," Deng told to the Global Times.

This manuscript, unlike other items, can be said to have belonged to its creator. Without particular evidence, the ownership should go to his descendants, Deng said.

"The manuscript was illegally appropriated unless the auctioneer can prove its current owner was close friends with Zhou Zuoren, who sent it to the owner," he added.

Deng was confident in winning the lawsuit but was still worried as to whether the court would receive the case. "After all, the case is related to the Cultural Revolution. It could set a strong precedent. It is likely many people who want their property back would follow suit," he said.

Nevertheless, for other objects like cultural relics and jewelry, the difficulties in proving claim remain huge.

"Even if the objects appear on the open market, it is tough to get them back through legal means as there is no solid evidence that it belonged to your family," Deng said.

Now, as time has gone by, some people have given up ever getting their property back while others fight on. The descendants of Fu Zengxiang, who had been a library curator at the Palace Museum, filed against the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage in April, asking to reveal the list of objects confiscated from the family during the Cultural Revolution.

The administration argued that they had not confiscated the pieces themselves and that the information is confidential.

According to reports, Fu left more than 20,000 pieces of precious ancient stone ware and books when he died in 1949. However, only a few of them were returned to the family after the Cultural Revolution.

"The search and confiscation campaign was illegal and a disaster. We cannot cover this problem by using history as an excuse. The government should face it and not retreat from it," Zhi An said.

Zhou said he would donate the manuscript to the country if the lawsuit wins.

"But it is always not easy to solve problems left by history. I have no good idea how to solve them. But one thing I know is that delaying the fact will only make facing these difficulties harder," Zhi An added.

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