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Statue to return to former royal resort after 159 years

By Wang Kaihao | China Daily | Updated: 2019-11-14 04:36
Minister of Culture and Tourism Luo Shugang (right) and Pansy Ho Chiuking, daughter of Hong KongMacao business magnate Stanley Ho Hungsun, unveil a red bronze horse head statue at a donation ceremony on Wednesday in Beijing. JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY

A well-known treasure from Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, finally came home to Beijing 159 years after it was looted.

A red bronze horse head statue was returned by the donation of 97-year-old collector and Hong Kong-Macao business magnate Stanley Ho Hung-sun, who handed the statue over to the National Cultural Heritage Administration in Beijing on Wednesday.

As a surprise for visitors to the National Museum of China, it appeared there on Wednesday and joined an exhibition displaying hundreds of priceless cultural relics that have been returned from overseas since 1949. The exhibit will run through Nov 27.

Built in 1707, Yuanmingyuan — the former imperial resort of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) — was often referred to as "the garden of gardens" for its lush landscapes and numerous temples, palaces and pavilions. It covered a 350-hectare area, about five times the size of the Forbidden City.

However, Anglo-French troops rampaged through the compound and set it on fire in 1860. Numerous national treasures, including 12 animal head statues within the Chinese zodiac, were looted in the mayhem.

Yuanmingyuan fell into ruins after the ransacking.

According to Liu Yuzhu, director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the newly returned statue will be transferred to the administration of Yuanmingyuan ruins.

"The return of the statue marks a broken link of collective historical memory being reconnected," Liu said.

"It will also encourage more compatriots' devotion, both at home and abroad, to better preserve the cultural heritage of our country," Liu added.

The horse head bust was one of 12 decorative taps — in the form of 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs — that were set for a foundation in Xiyang Lou area (or Western Mansions), a group of Baroque architecture in Old Summer Palace.

It appeared in Hong Kong for a Sotheby's auction in 2007, and the administration immediately contacted the auctioneer to register its disagreement at the auction, arguing it was stolen, and expressed hope that it would be returned to its home "in a suitable way in the future".

To save it from being taken abroad again, Ho negotiated with the seller and spent HK$69.1 million ($8.8 million) to get the statue in September 2007, and publicly exhibited it in Hong Kong and Macao to promote patriotism and consciousness of protecting cultural relics.

"In the past 70 years' effort to reclaim lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas, Hong Kong and Macao compatriots have always contributed," Liu said. "Ho is an outstanding representative among them."

The bust is the seventh of the 12 animal statues from the Yuanmingyuan fountain to be returned to Beijing from overseas. In 2003, a donation by Ho also returned a pig head statue to Beijing-based Poly Art Museum.

"After the opening of the exhibition, my colleagues and I wrote to Mr Ho exploring the possibility of letting the horse head travel northward and get united with the other six," Liu recalled. "Ho's family gave warm feedback and decided to permanently donate it to the country."

"It's our family's gift for the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China and 20th anniversary of Macao's return to the motherland, and best wishes for our country's prosperity," Pansy Ho Chiu-king, Stanley Ho's daughter, said at the returning ceremony.

"Time cannot flow backward," she said. "But I hope our efforts can help return more national treasures lost from Yuanmingyuan, and enable today's people to have a glimpse of the splendor of 'the garden of gardens'."

The 12 zodiac animals were designed by Italian Jesuit missionary and artist Giuseppe Castiglione, who served at the royal court of the Qing Dynasty. Its production mixed traditional Chinese craftsmanship and Western mechanics.

The whereabouts of the five remaining bronze zodiac heads remain unknown.

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