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A century of missing treasures
( 2003-11-19 08:35) (China Daily)

In the century after the fist Opium War (1840-42), Chinese cultural relics were "swept away," as Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) files said, at a scale unprecedented in the nation's history. Among the major events that contributed to those losses were the following:

Fire at the Old Summer Place

The Old Summer Palace, built from 1709 to 1857, extended more than 10 kilometres from east to west at the foot of the Fragrant Mountain in western Beijing.It was one of the royal families' collection houses, with an unimaginable amount of ancient books housed in a building called Wenyuange.

In two fires in the autumn of 1860, invading British and French troops burned down the palace. They took away what they believed was precious, and those artifacts are today displayed at the British Museum, the Fontainebleau Art Museum of France and some French and US museums.

Among the treasures is Painting on Admonitions of the Instructress to Court Ladies (Nushizhen Tu) by Gu Kaishi (345-406), in collection of the British Museum.

Pilferage in Beijing

From August 1900 to September 1901 Beijing was occupied by invading British, US, German, French, Russian, Japanese, Italian and Austrian armies.

Treasures were looted from the Forbidden City, royal gardens, government buildings and residential houses.

Yongle Encyclopaedia

There were only two copies of the 600-year-old, 11,095-volume Yongle Encyclopaedia. One of the two had been missing before the Qing Dynasty, and the other was kept in the Wenyuange of the Old Summer Palace and the Hanlin Yuan (Central Academy).

In 1860, the British took away volumes of the encyclopaedia in Wenyuange, and the rest were burned.

In 1900, most volumes of the encyclopaedia stored in the academy were burned, and others were scattered in remnants of the academy.

The books were then used as bricks to pave roads or build military fortifications.

Volumes of the encyclopaedia are currently scattered in museums and private collections in the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, Republic of Korea and Viet Nam.

Dunhuang Buddhism files

In 1900, a 1.8-metre-high cave covering 8.5 square metres was found in Dunhuang. It was filled with Buddhist relics dating back more than 1,000 years.

In 1907, British explorer Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) took away more than 9,000 volumes of files and 500 ancient paintings from the small county beside Northwest China's vast deserts.

The Han-language files taken by Stein now reside in the British Museum and those in Tibetan, Sanskrit and other languages are in an Indian library.

Over the next 30 years French, Japanese, Russian and US exploration teams swarmed to Dunhuang and grabbed almost all the Buddhism documents and many ancient murals. Today they are in the collection of major museums in these countries.

Heishui City files

In 1908 a Russian exploration team went to the remains of the deserted Heishui City, a legendary city of the Western Xia Kingdom which existed some 700 years ago in today's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of North China. The Russians carried to St Petersberg 160 kilograms of ancient Buddhism statues, artifacts, books, documents, coins and jewellery.

They returned in 1909 and took from a 10-metre-tall Buddhism pagoda 24,000 volumes of ancient books and documents and numerous paintings and sculptures.

Experts have found that 90 per cent of Western Xia relics were located in Heishui, most items are in collections at the Russian Academy of Sciences and the State Hemitage Museum (Winter Palace), St Petersberg, Russia.

Loulan, Milan and Khotan

The three ancient kingdoms, built on oases in Northwest China's deserts two millennia ago, were successively economic and military hubs on the ancient Silk Road from the 3rd century BC to the 12th century.

Since 1893 French, British, Swedish and Japanese explorers had taken from ruins of the kingdoms numerous ancient documents and artworks, which are mainly in major museums in those countries.

The artworks shocked the world with the Grandhara, traditional Chinese and classical Greek and Roman styles.

The oracles

Ancient pictographs inscribed on tortoise shells and bovine bones were found in 1899 at Yinxu, remains of the last capital of the Shang Dynasty (16th-11th centuries BC) in Anyang, Central China's Henan Province.

Called jiaguwen, the oracle bone inscriptions represent the earliest Chinese written language. The modern Chinese writing in Anyang use today evolved directly from the inscribed pictographs.

From the early 1900s to 1949 foreign collectors and institutions bought the shells and bones. Around 26,700 pieces of them are scattered in 12 foreign countries, among them 12,443 in Japan, about 8,702 in Canada, 3,089 in Britain and 1,882 in the United States.

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