Posted: March 03, 2009, 3:04 PM by NP Editor
Hero or hooligan — opinions are divided on Cai Mingchao, the Chinese man who bid US$50-million for two bronze heads from the collection of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, but then announced he had no intention of paying for them. The Qing dynasty sculptures of a rat and a dog were looted by British and French troops from the old imperial Summer Palace near Beijing more than 150 years ago.
China says its feelings were “hurt” by the sale, but it’s arguable British and French feelings were also hurt by the incident that preceded the looting.
First, though, Cai and his “patriotic” stand. In a story carried on the front page of The China Daily, he put the loftiest spin on his actions: “The auction negated the history that the cultural relics were looted, defied the ethics of international society, and breached the rules of commercial auctions,” he said. An online survey conducted by sina.com.cn, a Chinese government-run Web site, also showed more than 70% of the netizens support Cai’s action for he had safeguarded China’s interests.
As the BBC noted, another commentator, writing in the Beijing News, also lavished praise on the bogus bidder. “Cai Mingchao’s bid was a patriotic political act to strike back at an illegal auction,” said Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Socialist Academy. In a typical example of Chinese double-think, he added the art expert had not caused any trouble because the Chinese government did not recognize the legality of the sale.
Elsewhere, responses were less enthusiastic. According to Agence France-Presse, Liang Fafu, a blogger, said Cai had made the Chinese “look even worse on the international scene.”
“We come across as untrustworthy people, a bunch of con men. Who wants to deal with that kind of people in the future?”
Zhao Yu, a senior culture ministry official, told the Beijing Times Cai’s behaviour had done his compatriots no favour. “In overseas auctions… bidders usually need no deposit and simply rely on their reputation,” he said. “The fact that Cai Mingchao has gone back on his word in reality means he has undermined the credibility enjoyed by Chinese people at large international auctions.”
His muted response also has something to do with the provenance of the heads themselves. As Richard Spencer, The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Beijing, explains in his blog, “State media, while particularly sensitive to the European insult, are often rather careful to avoid hyping these items up as examples of high Chinese culture: for good reason, as they are not really Chinese, and the whole story of the fountain of which they are part is shrouded in ambiguity.”
It’s also worth recalling how the heads came to be in western hands in the first place. It’s not as if the British and French woke up one day and decided to launch an expedition to loot the Yuanming Yuan. Rather they were responding to an atrocity perpetrated by the emperor Xianfeng — the torture of two western envoys sent under a flag of truce to negotiate, and the murder of most of their small escort of British, French and Indian troopers.
As Geremie Barmé writes in his history of the palace, The Garden of Perfect Brightness, A Life in Ruins (link through Spencer blog), “In the autumn of 1860, a delegation of English and French negotiators were despatched to Peking to exchange treaties with the Chinese court following a peace settlement that had been forced on Peking …
“After numerous prevarications, bluffs and acts of deception on the part of the Qing Court, the emissaries of the emperor … detained 39 members of the delegation. They were imprisoned in the Yuan Ming Yuan, used as hostages in the negotiations with the foreign powers, and subsequently tortured. Of their number 18 died and, when their bodies were eventually returned to the Allied forces in October, 1860, even the liberal use of lime in their coffins could not conceal the fact that they had suffered horribly before expiring.”
In giving the order to loot the palace, Lord Elgin, the British high commissioner to China, wanted to punish the emperor and his officials, not his people. Memory of this part of the proceedings has faded from Chinese consciousness, Barmé goes on.
“Although without doubt an act of wanton barbarism, it is revealing that in popular Mainland Chinese accounts of the sackings of the palaces available to readers since the 1980s, one is hard pressed to find any mention of the atrocities committed by the Qing negotiators that led to this final act of vandalism. Nor in these popular histories are there detailed descriptions of the sly manipulations of the Qing Court in the tense days leading up to the sacking.”