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History seen through gifts
By Li Xiang (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-09-17 07:52

 

A pair of porcelain swans given by former US President Richard Nixon to Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.

Along with his ice-breaking trip to China in 1972, US President Richard Nixon brought a pair of porcelain swans. It was a gift that Nixon personally picked out for Chairman Mao Zedong.

The soft and fluffy texture of the swans' feathers are so expertly crafted that it is hard to believe that they are made of porcelain. More importantly, this pair of swans heralded the historic handshake between Chinese and US leaders, the impact of which has been felt ever since.

Currently shown at Treasures of the World - Exhibition of International Gifts to the People's Republic of China at the Military Museum of Chinese People's Revolution in Beijing, Nixon's swans are among the more than 300 international gifts from over 130 countries presented to the state leaders of China in the past five decades.

 

A porcelain statue of goddesses presented by the Franco Foundation of Spain to former Chinese President Li Xiannian in the 1980s.

These gifts are often crafted by unknown artists and rarely seen in public. Their artistry is often overshadowed by the famous historical figures and the events for which they were given.

Ranging from the opulent gilded eagle from Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz to President Hu Jintao in 2006 to the traditional beer mugs given by a retired German worker to Chairman Mao in 1973, each gift not only resonates with the vibrancy of the culture it represents, it also recalls a moment in history when China established friendly relations with the rest of the world.

The exhibition, organized by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the International Friendship Museum, is by far the largest of its kind. One third of the gifts are being shown to the public for the first time.

The displayed items were carefully selected by a group of art and antiques scholars from more than 20,000 state gifts collected by the International Friendship Museum, according to Deputy Director Xiang Zhaohui of the museum's exhibition department.

"Our experts took into consideration both the artistic value and the historical significance when selecting these precious gifts," Xiang says. "The purpose is to let our audience gain an understanding of China's diplomatic history and an appreciation of the rich and diverse cultures and customs these state gifts represent."

The exhibition opened during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has attracted more than 10,000 visitors a day. It will run through Sept 26.

The following are some highlights of the exhibition:

The most significant gift

The pair of porcelain swans given by former US president Richard Nixon to Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972 is not only an artistic but also a diplomatic masterpiece.

Designed and crafted by American biologist and porcelain artist Edward Boehm, the elegant swans carried a message of serenity and harmony from Washington to Beijing.

At the gift-giving ceremony, Nixon personally introduced the artist and explained how the swans were crafted to the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, who accepted the gift on Mao's behalf.

The pair Nixon brought to China is one of only two pairs of porcelain swans made by Boehm in his later years. The other pair is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The gift with the highest collection value

The Japanese painting, Morning at the Yakushi-ji Temple given to the Chinese government in 1978 is believed to be among the gifts that have the highest collection value.

The painter, Hirayama Ikuo, is one of Japan's most celebrated living artists. One of the paintings from his famous Silk Road series was reportedly auctioned for 210 million yen ($2 million) in 2005.

The painting he gave to the Chinese government depicts a grey dawn at Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the seven great Buddhist temples of the ancient Japanese capital of Nara.

A Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor who later converted to Buddhism, the 78-year-old artist is best known for his unique style of using some Western painting techniques to portray Asian themes.

The most sentimental gift

The black wood-mold, shell-inlaid lacquer box given by the people of Pyongyang to Chairman Mao Zedong in 1953 is one of the few state gifts not made of expensive materials or by a renowned artist, but it carries sentimental value.

With the Korean words for "longevity" engraved on its lid, the lacquer box was a gift for Mao's 60th birthday.

The box was brought to China by the late Premier Kim Il-Sung of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, who came to Beijing in 1953, immediately after the signing of the armistice that brought an end to the Korean War.

The most practical gift

A pair of reading lamps presented by Togo President Faure Gnassingb to Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006.

African arts and crafts often feature elephants and ivory as motifs. This artwork from the western African country of Togo, features a pair of hands each holding a wooden tusk on top of which is a lamp.

The most unusual gift

The coco de mer fruit presented by Seychelles President Albert Rene to the Chinese government in 1978.

Coco de mer is a rare palm tree that grows in the Seychelles. Its fruit, also called the sea coconut or the Seychelles nut, weighs more than 20 kilograms and contains the double coconut, which is the largest seed in the world.

The fruit's distinct shape looks like a woman's buttocks and was once believed to grow on a mythical tree at the bottom of the sea. European nobles in the sixteenth century would often have the shells of the nuts decorated with valuable jewels. The plant is now a national treasure of the Seychelles.

The most fragile gift

The porcelain statue of Greek goddesses presented by the Franco Foundation of Spain to former Chinese president Li Xiannian in 1980s is perhaps one of the most fragile gifts on display.

The delicately crafted goddesses are linked by their arms which can be easily chipped if not handled properly.

To avoid damage to the fragile porcelain gifts like this, the museum hired a professional fine arts transportation company to handle the packing and shipping of the artwork.

According to museum staff, each piece of porcelain was carefully wrapped and padded with foam plastic imported from Japan. The trucks that transported the gifts were also well cushioned.

In total, the museum has spent about 100,000 yuan ($14,000) for transportation of the delicate state gifts.

The preservation of the gifts

To house and preserve more than 20,000 delicate and precious state gifts from around the world, the International Friendship Museum spends two million yuan ($290,000) a year.

"Silverware, wooden statues, paintings and textiles require the most attentive and specialized care," says Fan Xiaoyuan, director of the museum's collection department.

"It is critical to control the temperature and humidity," Fan says. "Any changes in these two important factors can cause the artwork to expand and contract. Sometimes this can cause irreversible damage."

While cleaning, dusting, and repairing are routine for most of the gifts, some items like the Gobelins tapestry given by former French President Georges Pompidou are much more difficult to preserve.

"The biggest threats to our textile collection are insects and microorganisms," Fan says. "We use chemicals for pest control, but there are shortcomings because it can damage the fabrics."

To better protect its collections, the museum is planning to import more advanced equipment from France, which can kill microorganisms without damaging the artwork, he says.

Since the International Friendship Museum has no exhibition hall of its own, it stores all its holdings in its warehouse where conditions are not always ideal for art pieces.

"We hope to build an exhibition center in the future so that each marvelous gift can have a permanent home and be well displayed and preserved," Fan says.

(China Daily 09/17/2008 page18)