The Impact on the American Historical Record of Chinese Repatriation of Art and Artifacts

Posted on June 30, 2011


A word about the on-going repatriation of Chinese art that is causing market prices to soar.  China points to the French and British who removed items during the Boxer Rebellion,and to the the Taiwanese who took many artifacts with them when they left the mainland.  Few speak of the tremendous destruction visited upon China’s cultural heritage at the hands of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party.

Now wealthy Chinese appear in the auction houses of the world in an effort to repatriate what they consider their artifacts.  But what of the decorative items that Americans actually purchased there thus helping the economy in the late 1800s?  Their descendants are forced to sell because of the economic destruction China has wrought in America.  They owe us more than money.  They owe us thanks for loving their art and heritage and for carefully preserving it when they were busy destroying it.  We, the decadent capitalists – their enemy – loving the beauty and tradition of their artists and craftsmen – people they looked down upon and sent to the country to work on farms. China lost its “masters” in the process.

All of these treasures heading back to China is a loss for us here. They belonged here to instruct and enlighten us and to mark directions in our own social and art history. It will be forgotten that cases filled with Chinese and Japanese artifacts – carvings, snuff bottles, etc. were found in the homes of many upper class Americans.  They were fixtures. They inspired me to take Asian Art courses.  That these items “lived” among us and did not languish in museums is important.

The Chinese do not think of the decorative elements that came to western art due to contact with their culture.  The stenciling in our familiar Hitchcock chairs comes from contact during the whaling days.  Sailors remembered the lacquered, stenciled Chinese furniture they saw and tried to reproduce some of it here.

And now having either destroyed or ignored their own culture, Chinese are coming here and hauling it home. Here then is an overview of the destruction that Chinese authorities carried out prior to this  repatriation period of “their” art.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, commonly known as the Cultural Revolution, was a socio-political movement that took place in the People’s Republic of China from 1966 through 1976. Set into motion by Mao Zedong, then Chairman of the Communist Party of China, it was designed to further advance socialism in the country by removing capitalist elements from Chinese society, and impose Maoist orthodoxy within the Party.
The Revolution was launched in May 1966. Mao alleged that bourgeois elements were entering the government and society at large, aiming to restore capitalism. He insisted that these “revisionists” be removed through violent class struggle. China’s youth then responded to Mao’s appeal by forming Red Guard groups around the country. The movement then spread into the military, urban workers, and the Communist Party leadership itself.

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Mao officially declared the Cultural Revolution to have ended in 1969, but its active phase lasted until the death of Lin Biao in 1971. The political instability between 1971 and the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976 are now also widely regarded as part of the Revolution. After Mao’s death in 1976, forces within the Party that opposed the Cultural Revolution, led by Deng Xiaoping, gained prominence. Most of the Maoist reforms associated with the Cultural Revolution were abandoned by 1978. The Cultural Revolution has been treated officially as a negative phenomenon ever since; in 1981, the Party assigned chief responsibility to Mao, but also laid significant blame on Lin Biao and the Gang of Four for causing its worst excesses. [Fengshui-Dragon]

The fate of artifacts was consigned to the Red Guards:

Destruction of Art and Temples during the Cultural Revolution

In their attempt to wipe out China’s past and create a new society, Red Guards destroyed any precious painting, vase, pottery, calligraphy, embroidery, statue, book or works of art they could their hands on. Owners destroyed their own stuff to avoid getting caught with it. One man told the Washington Post that he watched his mother destroy a valuable old painting. “She was afraid the Red Guard would come and find it, and then they would kill us,” he said.

The Red Guard and supporters of the Cultural Revolution also destroyed temples and historical buildings. Between 1970 and 1974 an army unit stationed at Gubeikou tore down two miles of the Great Wall and used the stone blocks to construct army barracks. In Tibet the Red Guard turned thousand-year-old monasteries into factories and pigsties. At the Shanghai Art Museum, curators slept in the museum to fend off Red Guard attacks.

A Mao portrait painter and loyal communist was shipped away to a framing factory. His crime: painting portraits of Mao at a slight tilt so that only one ear showed, implying that Great Helmsman listened only to a select few not every one. “How many ears I painted was not up to me. It was decided by the central government,” the artists told the Los Angeles Times. [Facts and Details.com]

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