The jade seal of a Chinese emperor

Ruyi Shen (UWC AC’11-’13)

Victor Hugo wrote a letter to a lieutenant named Bartlette, condemning the invasion of China in 1860: “…one brigand named France and the other named Great Britain…Against both I protest…” He also suggested: “France…quite naively … thinks herself the rightful owner of the property…I can only hope that…France…will cleanse herself of the crime by returning to China all the spoils taken from the Winter Palace. ” All these can be related to a recent auction of a Chinese seal.

A jade seal commissioned by Qian Long, the greatest emperor in Qing Dynasty, made about 1.1 million euros at auction in Artcurial last month. The seal is made from a precious jade and is carved into the shape of a dragon. Only about three centimeter square, the dragon on the top represents the status and power of the emperor. No wonder why an intense bidding battle was caused.

Chinese people were “amazed” by the result, however, not because the hammer fell at such a high price. The news became sensational due to a debate about the origin of the seal. According to Artcurial, it belonged to a prestigious French family, in the possession of the seal since 19th century. However, Chinese government argued that it was stolen from a Chinese palace. It has become a quite big thing in China since we have faced too many such sales of cultural relics illegally taken out of the country. And sadly, it happens again.

I shared the same anger with billions of Chinese people around the world. The explanation given by Artcurial was quite ridiculous, which suggested that the seal was not robbed from China. Born in China, I could not understand more of Chinese emperors’ craziness about their power and status. The private seal of an emperor is widely known as the embodiment of authority. As the symbol of power, how could the royal family possibly give the seal to any foreigners? There could be no way other than using violence to get the seal.

Oddly, the robbery could reflect the invaders’ desire for Chinese relics. However, the “business of Chinese relics” did not happen on an equal basis. The joint British and French military expedition looted wherever they went. We do not intend to look into the crime conducted by some countries in that period of history, but the current event is seen as a national humiliation. To comply with international conventions, these relics should at least not appear in the auctions. However, despite Chinese historians’ confirmation that the seal was stolen by Anglo-French troops in 1860, along with other 1.5 million relics, Artcurial continued the auction.

To some extent, these similar events exactly manifest the attitude of France towards the history of invasion, which doesn’t include the guilty feeling. It has always been a big topic about the countries’ responsibility for some intrusions in the history. Still, not only China, but many other countries sharing the similar history, has a long way to win the justice.


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