Auction Block Nationalism [Op-Ed]

Amid Obama’s budget battles, reworking of the foundations of Iraq policy, and his issuing of the nearly-inconceivable news that the U.S. economy shrank in the last fiscal quarter of the Bush presidency by 6.2%, you might be forgiven for missing one of most important events of 2009.

It occurred in February, in Paris, at a Christie’s auction of two Chinese relics owned by the estate of Algerian-born fashion titan Yves Saint-Laurent. The two objects d’arte, bronze heads of a rat and a rabbit, respectively, had been torn from the flaming white marble hallways of the Yuanmingyuan Palace [圆明园] in Beijing by imperialist French forces who were there to punish the Qing court for daring to suggest that Europeans could no longer traffic opium in China in 1860.

This video clip is a digital reconstruction, with some stirring cello-centered music, of the Yuanmingyuan.

In addition to their tumultuous origins on the auction bloc, the heads belonged to one of the most famous men in France (before his death last June) and were estimated a collective worth of about 30 million Euros (or 38 million U.S. dollars). For the People’s Republic of China, the humiliating provenance of the goods and their pending sale reignited an ongoing diplomatic and media skirmish with France which continues to fuel indignation on the mainland.

One would think that the French government would be doing everything in its power to calm the Sino-French relationship in the aftermath of the fiascos of 2008. That April, the Olympic Torch made its promenade through Paris, galvanizing anti-China street protests calling attention to human rights violations in the still-fresh crackdown on what the Chinese Communist Party called a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” in Tibet. Naturally the perceived slight to China’s national dignity – symbolized by a Chinese torchbearer being attacked in her wheelchair by a pro-Tibet protester on the Champs-Elysees – enflamed all manner of nationalistic reactions from Chinese students and bloggers.

A rather articulate young gentleman describes the need for a well-informed Sino-French friendship in a Chinese protest in March 2008 at the Republique in Paris:

And an inspiring, pop-inflected collage of the Chinese in Paris, which ends on the note “Asia stand up!”

Carrefour, the French superstore, was boycotted in China and the French embassy in Beijing had to ramp up security. Strange parallels emerged between the emerging anti-French movement in China and its unlikely brethren, the “Freedom Fries” public relations campaign led by the Republican Party in 2003 intended to punish the French government and companies for opposing the road to “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” (Ironically, China supported the French position on Iraq, but when the war went ahead anyway, China sent a few hundred tents for refugees and a check to cover their postage costs.)

And, as in the U.S. in 2003, China’s anti-French discourse became juvenile and strident. When French President Sarkozy publicly mused, as acting head of the European Union, that he might not travel to Beijing for the Olympics, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua violated their own conservative publishing guidelines and posted some recently auctioned nude photos of Sarkozy’s wife, the model and singer Carla Bruni, on the web. While this step delighted Chinese netizens, the French responded with rhetoric about human rights.

Following on the heels of this debacle described, the Dalai Lama visited Seattle. (Sadly, His Holiness failed to post a single update to his “Facebook” page during the trip, making it pointless.) Chinese students were quite furious at the Dalai Lama! Popular slogans included “Dalai—Your Smiles Charm, Your Actions Harm” and some old-time favorites about ethnic harmony in the PRC.

A dispassionate account of the Seattle/University of Washington protest:

These protests were fed by Chinese perceptions of a broadly “Western” antagonism which included CNN, the Dalai Lama, Nancy Pelosi – and the government and people of France. In other words, Chinese sensitivities can be provoked by other nations, and the United States is left to deal with the consequent aggravation to the Sino-U.S. dynamic. China is split eternally and increasingly by dichotomies – today they are economic, regional, political, and ethnic, to name a few – but when provoked by a challenge, insult, or genuine crisis, Chinese public opinion appears to be remarkably unified. Similarly, pride in China emerges easily, as in the heartening response to the Sichuan Earthquake.

Thus, when Saint Laurent’s partner and owner of the antiques blithely states that he “would gladly return the sculptures to China if only China recognizes human rights” it is hardly surprising that Chinese stand opposed and insulted. For a country that saw vast swaths of its territory dominated by foreign powers – culminating with Japan’s suffocating and nigh-total embrace – in the 19th and 20th century, narratives of China’s victimization are far from imaginary. Nevertheless, as the 2008 the Olympic Games drew to a close in Beijing, the prominent China expert David Shambaugh opined that it now might be possible for China to jettison its wounded nationalism for a more positive vision of a China no longer hemmed in and oppressed by the technologically and morally superior West. The auction of the bronze treasures from the Yuanmingyuan reminds us that “the Century of Humiliation” may not be such an easy thing for China to leave behind. Observers marveling at China’s continued rise would be wise not to forget the fact.

1 Comment

  1. It’s really hard for me, as a person, to wrap my head around the mental mind games some play.

    Regardless of Human Rights status, the objects d’art, created in China, by Chinese, are part of their cultural history. Regardless of their current status on human rights, which kind of reeks of Western Superiority, those objects should have been returned.

    An artifact of a living culture’s past should not be a political pawn, especially coming from a culture who’s past is marred by domination and genocide.

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