Returning home
Overseas cultural relics have a hard road back to China
Published: Sep 14, 2014 09:57 PM Updated: Sep 15, 2014 08:55 AM

Bronze rat and rabbit heads once part of a Chinese Zodiac-themed fountain at Beijing's Yuanmingyuan are on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Photo: IC

A group of cultural relics belonging to China, but smuggled into the US will be returned by US authorities in two months, according to a Chinese judicial official at an international conference.

"These pieces, smuggled by a transnational criminal group but detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have been proved to belong to the People's Republic of China. So the order has been made to hand them back to us," Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director general of the Department of Judicial Assistance and Foreign Affairs at the Ministry of Justice of China, told the Global Times at the 4th International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property in Dunhuang, Northwest China's Gansu Province last week.

According to Zhang, this case is part of the two countries' latest efforts to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural relics and is based on a 2009 bilateral agreement. He went on to explain that this was the first time that he has handled such a successful and smooth return of cultural property in his career.

 Due to wars and illicit trafficking, the theft of cultural relics is something China has had to deal with for quite some time. For instance, one of the most famous instances was the theft of the heads of several bronze Chinese Zodiac animal-headed statues that were part of a fountain located in Beijing's Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, when the imperial garden was ransacked by French and British troops in 1860.

 Although some of the bronze heads have been returned or bought back, other cultural relics that have become part of the collections of various overseas national and university museums or personal collectors over the years, have had a difficult time making their way back to China.

Luckily the international community has come together to find a solution to this and other similar issues. From Tuesday to Thursday of last week, cultural and legal experts from countries such as South Korea, Nigeria and the UK, together with UNECO specialists discussed the protection and return of cultural property at the above mentioned conference.  

Building public awareness 

While the Nazi's theft of art and other cultural treasures during World War II has been condemned by people all over the world and even depicted in some Hollywood movies such as the recent George Clooney film The Monuments Men. "Japanese crimes towards China's cultural heritage are seldom mentioned and need more public attention," said Wang Yunxia, a professor at the School of Law at Renmin University of China. "International laws are important, but are not everything."

Korea has also suffered its fair share of thefts. In 2005, South Korean civil groups, with assistance of the South Korean government, successfully demanded the return of a 15th-century stele looted by Japan in 1905. It's important to note that it was South Korea that initiated and hosted the first International Conference of Experts in 2011 while also holding the second conference the following year.

"In Korean society, public awareness of this problem is very high. The Korean people, especially some NGOs and civil groups are very keen on this issue. And they have engaged in some specific claims. The Korean government knows the importance of this issue as well," Lee Keun-gwan, a professor from the School of Law at Seoul National University, told the Global Times.

Regional cooperation 

According to Li Xiaojie, director general of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, China has signed bilateral agreements based on the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Protection of  Cultural Property with 18 countries to prevent the illicit trafficking of cultural relics. However, while the US, Italy, Switzerland and Greece count among their number, Japan does not. 

This is a major problem for China. According to The List of Chinese Cultural Heritages Brought into Japan after the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), a book written by Chinese scholars shortly after World War II in 1946 and published in 2012, shows that Japan had stolen a total 15,245 cultural heritage items.

Both Professor Wang and Lee agreed that negotiations and dialogue can help find a way to resolve this issue. In his speech at the conference, Lee listed practical solutions that South Korea and Japan have reached. To date a total of 1,432 items among the 4,479 items requested for return have been "turned over" to South Korea in accordance with an agreement signed in 1965 concerning cultural cooperation and cultural relics. Meanwhile with the help of the 2010 Agreement on Books between the Republic of Korea and Japan, a total of 1,205 royal protocols and other books were returned in 2010-11.

Wang told the Global Times that she hopes China can learn from South Korea and that China and Japan can establish similar agreements in the future.

"Civic groups can play an important part in the return of important pieces of cultural heritage. If their voices are loud enough and last long, the Japanese government can't ignore their wishes."

Wang Yunxia. 

Expert recommendation 

At the conference, the Dunhuang Recommendation on the Protection and Return of Illicitly Exported Cultural Property was adopted by members of the scientific panel made up of cultural and legal experts.

"The recommendation is not a legally binding document, but this will help raise awareness not just in Chinese society but among the world community about the importance of this problem," said Lee.

In the recommendation, states are encouraged to "take all necessary measures to prevent the export of objects derived from clandestine excavations" and "prohibit the import into their territory of cultural objects that are not accompanied by an export certificate or authorization issued by competent authorities of the States of origin." 

One of the breakthroughs in the eyes of Huo Zhengxin, a professor from the China University of Political Science and Law, is article 13 of the recommendation, in which "States are encouraged to accept claims for items of outstanding historical, archaeological or cultural value outside their own statues of limitation."

"This is the first time that China has drafted international rules covering the return of cultural property," said Zhu Ye, division head of the Department of Foreign Affairs at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, emphasizing the document's historic significance.