Dunhuang Treasures – Preserving Antiquities Or Rape?

A shorter edited version of this article was published in Singapore’s English language newspaper, The Straits Times, in July 2001.

A remote part of China that has captured universal attention and growing international tourist interest is its Silk Road, which encompasses romanticism, turbulent history, famed ruins, monuments and artefacts as well as an unparalleled and timeless desert landscape.

It covers mostly two large provinces of China’s outlying Gansu and Xinjiang, which occupy more than one-sixth of the country’s colossal landmass of about 10-million sq km.

In the early 20th century, it was a potentially fertile excavation site for the Western archaeologists. With strong financial backings, they and their retinues would spend prolonged periods there, hoping to uncover a long forgotten ancient civilisation that was presumed destroyed by the ravages of nature and the successive invaders.

Around 1900 and 1925, several expeditions from Britain, Russia, Germany, France, United States and Japan traversed the length and breadth of the Silk Road, pitting their knowledge and expertise against their competitors in order to beat them to it. The Western ventures yielded handsome harvests of antiquities, which their paid Asian assistants would skilfully pack into sturdy cases and loaded them onto camels for their stealthy and arduous long journeys out of China. The most famous or notorious of these archaeologists, depending on one’s point of view, was Aurel Stein(1862-1943), a naturalised British citizen, who led three expeditions there, and came away with bumper finds and resultant fame.

Stein’s greatest coup occurred in 1907. At that time Daoist abbot Wang was the self-proclaimed custodian of a secret Dunhuang cave library, which he accidentally discovered in 1900. Extremely rare 5th to 9th centuries Buddhist manuscripts, paintings and textiles had been hidden in that cave for almost 900 years. Stein succeeded in cunningly inducing this naive and semi-literate man to allow him to remove thousands of the choicest pieces (including the oldest printed book extant) for a bribe equivalent to 130 pound sterling, a sum which Stein said “would make his friends at the British Museum chuckle”.

Stein had no guilt feelings about his reprehensible dealings with Wang, even though he knew full well that the abbot was neither the owner nor had any authority to dispose of these priceless Chinese national treasures. When news of his Dunhuang booty broke, this unfamiliar oasis became world-renowned overnight. Other western and Japanese archaeologists also made their way to abbot Wang,, and they too bribed him to obtain numerous pieces.

Stein, basking in his own glory and far from being remorseful, smugly described his exploits in China as that of a “cultural interloper”. Nonetheless, he became an instant celebrity and subsequently won many public accolades in Europe, including being knighted by his British king and conferred honorary doctorates for his unprecedented Silk Road achievements. All told, Stein and his fellow Western archaeologists removed from the site about 80% of the 40,000 to 50,000 Dunhuang artifacts to Britain, Russia and France, and the remainder is scattered in China and several other Western and Asian countries.

Stein stoutly defended his actions on the grounds that , by taking these rare and fascinating relics to the West, they would be better preserved for mankind. These would be documented, studied by scholars and made available for regular public viewing. He was convinced that the Chinese had no interest in investigating their own antiquities. If left in situ, they would likely be harmed, if not destroyed, by local treasure-seekers and religious fanatics.

Despite his altruistic claim, the irony is that the overwhelming majority of his large Dunhuang collection has been hidden at the basements of the British Museum since their arrival there almost a century ago. However, Stein’s rationalisation did strike a chord with a good cross-section of his contemporary Western archaeologists and academia, but was roundly condemned by his detractors including Arthur Waley, a leading orientalist at the British Museum.

In his stern rebuke for Stein’s unedifying deeds at Dunhuang, Waley asked forthrightly how would an Englishman respond if a Chinese archaeologist obtained a hoard of mediaeval manuscripts from the custodian of a ruined English monastery through bribery and removed it to China?

As to be expected, China had no recourse except to denounce Stein indignantly, likening what he did as tantamount to “cultural robbery and plunder”, and accusing him of entering China under false pretences by concealing his real motives. The question on the mind of many is: Why did China permit these foreign archaeologists to do what they pleased on Chinese soil and virtually helping themselves to such a precious part of its accumulated cultural heritage? There were several factors.

The Chinese empire was extremely weak and crumpling, due to misrule and repeated foreign encroachments on its sovereignty through their bullying “gunboat policy”. The Chinese central government had more pressing problems to contend with than monitoring the behaviour of a handful of foreigners in the remotest parts of their vast territory. Compounding this problem, the local mandarins were hopelessly corrupt and incompetent. Their ignorance made them recklessly indifferent to the importance of protecting these national treasures for posterity. Above all, they succumbed to the charms and persuasiveness of these scheming visitors.

Should the Dunhuang relics be returned to their country of origin in the more enlightened world of the 21st century? I am sanguine that fair-minded people throughout the world would endorse such a proposal enthusiastically.

Is China capable of looking after these priceless treasures if they revert to her now? The answer is clearly in the affirmative. It is fast becoming a political and economic superpower. Since 1949, it has carried out extensive archaeological excavations on the Silk Road and elsewhere with resounding results. It has also built world-class museums in large cities and at the various well-known archaeological sites in order to showcase the new finds. Consequently, an ever increasing number of foreign tourists flock there to view these exhibits and to experience its rich culture.

Furthermore, all these finds are being systematically documented, studied by scholars and researchers and their publications are made available to their overseas counterparts. I firmly support the United Nations Resolution 38/34, passed in 1983, urging member nations with cultural relics taken from other countries to return them to their countries of origin on terms to be mutually agreed. It will be an act of statesmanship and enlightened diplomacy for countries with the largest number of the Dunhuang relics (Russia, Britain and France) to set an exemplary example for others to emulate. I implore them to do so.

Dunhuang Mogao Caves (map and photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Lam Pin Foo

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2 thoughts on “Dunhuang Treasures – Preserving Antiquities Or Rape?

  1. The fact is that the excesses committed on the part of foreign adventurers in the name of archeology is downright shameful: i.e. peeling off frescoes from the Dunhuang and Bezeklik caves (Warner and Von leCoq) The guardians of this loot even today claim that since they have purchase slips they don’t have an obligation to return these priceless relics. You may as well admit you work for an amoral institution which holds cultural heritage looted from a foreign country. But let’s face it we live in an amoral world where $$ is all that matters and to the custodians who utter: we paid good money for it why should we return it?
    I simply say: shame, shame shame…….

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