Seven artifacts returned to Yuanmingyuan, marking significant progress in repatriation of relics lost overseas
Published: Oct 13, 2023 08:50 PM
Returned stone columns of the Old Summer Palace. Photo: Chen Xi/GT

Returned stone columns of the Old Summer Palace. Photo: Chen Xi/GT

Seven ancient stone columns from the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan, in Beijing, which had been lost overseas for over a century, were officially returned to their homeland. They made their debut on Friday at the opening ceremony of the Exhibition of Repatriated Stone Pillars of Yuanmingyuan and 2023 Beijing Public Archaeology Season at the Old Summer Palace. A Chinese research specialist at the Old Summer Palace told the Global Times that the return marks another significant repatriation of important cultural relics lost overseas following the return of the bronze horse head statue to the palace in 2020.

The stone columns stand at approximately 80 to 92 centimeters in height, featuring ornate carvings on the fronts, primarily Western-style motifs like fleur-de-lis and shell patterns. The sides of the columns display vases filled with traditional Chinese flowers such as peonies, magnolias, lotus flowers, and chrysanthemums, auspicious symbols in Chinese culture. The scroll-like carvings and window patterns are similar to those found on traditional Chinese architectural columns and balustrades, reflecting a rich cultural blend of East and West.

During the Second Opium War in 1860, British and French invaders captured Beijing and looted imperial gardens such as the Old Summer Palace. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe, a Norwegian who lived and worked in China, developed a strong interest in Chinese artifacts. He collected numerous Chinese artworks, including these seven Yuanmingyuan stone columns, which were later housed in the West Norway Museum of Decorative Art.

Under the guidance of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and the National Cultural Heritage Administration, various government bodies, universities, institutions, and societal forces worked together to bring about the donation of these stone columns from Norwegian collections to China, according to an introduction at the exhibition.

After conducting physical examinations, Chinese experts agreed that these seven artifacts are made of white marble, showcasing exquisite craftsmanship with intricate floral and geometric motifs in bas-relief, embodying a fusion of both Chinese and Western cultural elements. Their quality, ornamentation, and material closely match the existing relics from the Old Summer Palace's Western-style building. These items are well-preserved, displaying only slight weathering.

Liu Yang, a member of the Academic Committee of China's Old Summer Palace Society, told the Global Times on Friday that while there are currently similar carved stone columns in the Old Summer Palace, the return of these specific stone column artifacts holds great importance in advancing the repatriation of cultural relics that had been lost overseas to the palace, as these stone columns are well preserved and require no restoration.

This exhibition features around 50 items, including relics and photographs, and will be open to the public from Saturday as part of a long-term display.

University students specializing in cultural heritage who visited the exhibition expressed their pride and excitement to the Global Times after seeing these artifacts returned to their rightful place in the Old Summer Palace, which represents the embodiment of Chinese-Western cultural exchanges.

"The Old Summer Palace is not just a historical park, but also a site for patriotic education, constantly reminding us of the painful lesson that falling behind can lead to suffering. We should remember history and the suffering of the Chinese nation," a student named Yang told the Global Times on Friday.