What I lost in translation at both ends of the Great Divide.

And what I found for making that attempt to bridge the chasm.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Stolen Beast Heads of the Haiyangtang Zodiac Fountain. 圆明园十二生肖兽首.


The Haiyantang 海晏堂 hǎiyàntáng was a water clock fountain that have 12 figures of the 12 animals that corresponds to the Twelve Terrestrial Branches and is commonly known as the Chinese Zodiac signs or 十二生肖 shí'èr shēngxiào in Chinese. The main bodies were carved of stone and the heads cast from bronze. The animals spouted water to tell the time in a fountain created for the Qianlong emperor 乾隆帝 Qiánlóngdì and was situated in the Garden of Eternal Spring 长春园 Chángchūn Yuán. The design of the figures is attributed to the Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione.

The animal heads were stolen during the looting and destruction of the Old Summer Palace 圆明园 (see last post) by removing it from its stone bodies and sent out of China. To date only 5 of the 12 heads are back in China. The Poly Museum managed to secure the tiger, monkey and ox heads in 2000. Macau gambling magnate Stanley Ho purchased the pig head in 2003 and the horse head in 2007 for USD8.9 millions. He donated both of these back to China. The rabbit and rat heads were auctioned by Christie in 2009 despite China’s attempt to block it. A Chinese collector Cai Mingchao who won the bid USD40 millions refused to pay to pay for it out of protests.

China signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the 1995 Unidroit Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Then, why are these not returned to China? These are the words of Jean Couteau – “ Because the Hague Conventions, this “civilizing” of war, were never meant to be retroactive. Since it was implemented, in 1910, it may indeed have compelled, upon Germany and Russia in particular, the restitution of artworks seized during the Second World War, but it does not compel any restitution of the works seized during Western colonial expansion. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Hague Conventions and other similar later ones, viewed by the West as progress toward a true international law and genuine “universalism”, are perceived by the Chinese and other formerly colonized people as yet another one-sided imperialistic diktat. “

The bronze animal heads have come to represent the returning of stolen national treasures to China and in a larger perspective its relationship with the world. Will the so-called civilized nations adopt one standard for themselves and another for the rest of the world?



  1. You can refer to this website for more photos and info of the garden.

  2. Thanks for the link - very interesting photos of the ruins. Made me even sadder looking at it. What a grand place, what waste! Sad indeed! Sigh...