Retrieved relics highlight success in saving heritage

Updated: 2019-01-10

  An exhibition of exquisite artifacts promises a special treat for visitors not just for their beauty but because they have been saved for the nation from illegal smugglers.

  From a jade dragon and an ox-headed jade figurine from Hongshan culture - dating back more than 5,000 years and found in Liaoning province - to a crown from Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Kangxi's concubine, the 750 precious artifacts range from Neolithic times to the last dynasty.

  These cultural relics cover nearly the entire history of Chinese civilization, but they would have been lost if not for the country's commitment in recent years to fight the smuggling of cultural treasures.

  Guarding Civilization with Concerted Efforts: Exhibition of National Crackdown on Crimes Related to Cultural Relics has opened at the National Museum of China in Beijing and is running through to Jan 26.

  "It's the first time that China has held such a national-level exhibition to show our achievements in fighting crime and saving cultural relics," Le Rile, the curator of the exhibition, said.

  Many of the retrieved key relics are on display and 70 percent of the exhibits are labeled as national-level precious artifacts.

  For example, a gold seal from Meishan, Sichuan province, from the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) was owned by Zhang Xianzhong, a rebel leader with a bloodthirsty reputation. Part of a hoard at the bottom of a river, the seal remained undisturbed for centuries until stolen by smugglers before being retrieved.

  Funeral objects belonging to the Marquis of Haihun, who was briefly emperor during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 220), would have been stolen if local villagers in Jiangxi province did not report tomb raiders.

  One section highlights 14 major cases and how authorities traced and recovered lost treasures from all over the country.

  "There is still a serious problem with ensuring the protection of our heritage," said Liu Daming, deputy director of the office of legal supervision at the National Cultural Heritage Administration. "Robbery, theft and smuggling of cultural relics are still prevalent."

  Ancient tombs, city ruins and stone carvings in the countryside are the main targets, he said. Since 2013, there have been more than 100 cases reported from sites under national-level protection. Some World Heritage sites also have been targeted, including the mausoleums of Ming and Qing emperors in Beijing and Hebei province.

  Excavations and follow-up research on the looted sites have "filled some missing links in historical studies", Liu pointed out. Both Zhang Xianzhong's silver hoard and Marquis of Haihun's tomb were listed on the country's annual list of Top 10 Archaeologist Discoveries.

  "Archaeologists have a rigid excavation process and detailed records," said Lei Xingshan, an archaeology professor at Peking University. "Tomb raiders only steal whatever looks valuable and leave a mess at the site, which robs the site of its historical data."

  Though many important underground heritage sites were detected by archaeologists, these will be left intact until they can be properly excavated.

  However, tomb raiders have no such concerns. But the fight to preserve the country's heritage goes on.

  Gong Zhiyong, a supervisor at the Ministry of Public Security in charge of criminal investigations, said more than 5,000 cases involving relics have been solved since 2013, and approximately 10,000 suspects have been found guilty and detained.

  Another statistic from the People's Supreme Court shows that 2,197 cases involving relics were wrapped up from 2013 to 2017, and 1,060 smugglers were sentenced to five years in prison or longer.

  "Tens of thousands of cultural relics have been retrieved in such campaigns," Gong said. "The items on display are only a small portion of them.

  "However, we're still confronted with many challenges as new methods of crime keep popping up as well as organized gangs."

  In Wenxi county, Shanxi province, three brothers surnamed Hou formed a gang and were also involved in drug-dealing, blackmailing, and gambling as well as stealing cultural relics.

  Tomb raiders also got more "professional". In one case, a suspect spent seven months restoring a bronze item to sell it for a better price before being arrested.

  "We will continue to apply a great deal of pressure," Gong vowed. "We'll strike hard against these crimes and guard the integrity of our country's culture."

  And Gong said that the appraisal of cultural relics involved in such cases requires a great deal of expertise.

  Consequently, different departments are joining together. The Ministry of Public Security and the National Cultural Heritage Administration worked together to establish a national online platform for tracing lost relics. And the administration also frequently organized relevant training sessions for police officers.

  More than 5 billion yuan ($726 million) has been allocated by the central government since 2012 to improve security systems at warehouses for relics. The Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate have released a series of judicial interpretation documents to facilitate the processing of legal cases.

  And such campaigns also need international cooperation. Many stolen artifacts are destined for the global market.

  A pair of wing-shaped ornamental gold pieces proves the point. The artifact from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) was stolen from a site in Longnan, Gansu province, in the 1990s. Together with other relics from the same site, it was resold many times before it was donated to the Guimet Museum in Paris.

  However, it was finally repatriated from France in 2015 after the Chinese government's continuous efforts.

  "More such cases will also explore references for other countries which share the similar problems," Liu added.

  According to Liu, China has signed bilateral agreements or memorandums of understanding with 21 countries cooperating to fight against illicit international trade of cultural properties and facilitate the return of stolen artifacts.

  The most recent one was with Argentina in November.

  Source: China Daily

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