Lee Yee: Thanks for the Imperialist Plunder

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[This text was originally published in Apple Daily on May 5, 2016. Translated with permission]


When visiting London, you cannot miss the museums and, among them, the British Museum. Established in 1753, this is the world’s largest and most famous museum. There you can see the precious historical remains of human civilizations with their ancient artistic creations, unthinkable today. Once you enter this old building, you will be received by a blend of traditional and modern within the Great Court. Completed and opened to the public in December, 2000, it is said to be the largest covered square in Europe, topped with glass plates through which a blue sky shines upon it.

The British Museum holds more than eight million items, divided into ten collection departments. The most renowned is the Egyptian collection, said to be superior to that in Egypt, but also the Near East, Greco-Roman, and European collections are real eye-openers.

Many of these collections were acquired via plunder or trade during the past British colonial expansion, and among them the “Admonitions of the Court Instructress Scroll” from the Jin Dynasty, seized from the Summer Palace during the Eight-Nation Alliance’s invasion of China. Gu Kaizhi, who lived between from AD 345 to AD 406, based his painting on a poetic composition of Zhang Hua, “Admonitions of the Court Instructress”, written in AD 292, which was meant to provide advice on marital morality for the women within the harem of the Emperor. Although modern scholars believe it to be a copy made between the fifth and eighth century, it is still a very valuable copy. Since the paper employed in Chinese painting is difficult to preserve and cannot be exposed to light for a long time, the British Museum reduced public exhibit to only twenty consecutive days, twice a year. Imperialists did care about the historical artifacts they plundered, even more than the original plundered countries. Should we mention the destruction of cultural relics carried in China by the Chinese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution, the many robbed tombs and smuggled antiques that were sold to other countries for profit after the national reforms, and the lack of professionalism in heritage conservation? Because all of this, people are left with the feeling that, if we want to preserve these cultural artifacts, let the whole world enjoy them, and get some insights from them, we should probably thank the imperialist plunder.

This is not only true for Chinese relics, but also for other less developed regions. People who visit Egypt will say that many Egyptian relics are abandoned in the ground and the museums do not properly preserve the materials, its main reason being lack of funds.

Almost all museums in London have free admission, although for the British Museum, I believe, even paying a high admission fee would be worth it. The reason they do not charge is to encourage citizens and tourists to educate themselves through the holdings and exhibits in the museums. Government funding and private donations, including those small contributions from visitors, are the museums’ sources for maintenance and development. As for 2002, museums have also faced serious financial crisis, but they haven’t changed their free admission policy as a result.

Among the many dazzling collections, it was the bust of the mythological Greek hero Heracles that really captivated me. The more I looked, the more I wondered, not knowing who the artist was, how much those lines over his face, the expression of those eyes, and the angles of the mouth fascinated me. And hence I came to think about another mythological Heracles, Antaeus, who according to the legend got his strength from the ground. As long as he did not leave the ground, no one was a match for him. But when Heracles went across Libya, he discovered Antaeus’ secret –that his infinite power came from the contact with the ground. During the contest between them, Heracles hold him aloft in the air, so there was no place where he could gain strength from, and then crushed him to death in a bearhug. I took a picture of Heracles’ bust and set it as desktop background to remember the story of Antaeus: If we leave the place where we live, the continuous text of our lives may disappear.

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