China's lost art

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. The return of cultural treasures to their home country can be an emotional subject. Here's an example from China. It concerns the Old Summer Palace -- a vacation home for the Qing emperor and his court in the 19th century. The palace was looted and burned by invading European forces in 1860. Its many cultural treasures now sit in museums and galleries around the world -- mostly in Britain and France. And China would like them back. The World's Alex Gallafent has the story.

ALEX GALLAFENT: According to a report in the state press, China plans to dispatch a team of experts around the world in an attempt to catalog the lost relics of the Old Summer Palace. The report says there may be one and a half million artifacts in more than 2,000 museums spread across nearly 50 countries. That's a hint we're not talking about any old summer home.

XUDONG ZHANG: �And at the height of the old summer palace, it was known to be, even to westerners like Victor Hugo and before him, Voltaire, all these Enlightenment European thinkers, it was known as "the garden of all gardens."

GALLAFENT: Xudong Zhang directs the East Asian Studies department at New York University.

ZHANG: It was over the top. As a collection of artifacts, of wealth. Of cultural wealth, it was probably unrivalled in the world.

GALLAFENT: And it provoked in writers such as Victor Hugo a kind of "Oriental enchantment." Here's how Hugo described it -- sight unseen -- in a letter.

MALE VOICE: "Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, frame it with cedar wood, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace -- such was this building."

GALLAFENT: It didn't last. Britain and France invaded China in what was the second opium war -- a war over trading rights and imperial reach. Xudong Zhang.

ZHANG: The Qing emperor just fled the capital. He was very afraid of the western military. So Beijing was more or less a defenseless city.

GALLAFENT: British and French soldiers ransacked the Old Summer Palace, collecting treasures along the way. And then, over two days, the British burned most of it to the ground. Today the palace lies in ruins. Xudong Zhang went to college right next door, at Beijing University.

ZHANG: The students in the early, mid-80s used it as a picnic ground, you know. Lovers would go there, maybe because it's deserted. Just a bunch of ruins. Very quiet. Wild.

GALLAFENT: But Zhang says the ruins of the Old Summer Palace are a symbolic open wound -- they remind Chinese of a humiliating episode in their history. James Hevia expands on that.

JAMES HEVIA: The summer palace has become a focal point in China, but it stands for this larger pattern of Western European warfare in China that runs right into the early 20th century.

GALLAFENT: Hevia is a professor of International History at Chicago University -- he's currently in Beijing. And he says the Chinese were humiliated at both the repeated invasions of European imperial powers...

HEVIA: �And hence China's weakness in being unable to defend itself against these encroachments.

GALLAFENT: Hevia adds that such a sense of humiliation is hardly limited to China. Many of the great western museums are filled with the spoils of war from places like Africa and Asia.

HEVIA: And I would imagine that the sense of humiliation in these other places over these things is similar to the Chinese. Although it may not be articulated in the same way, because other places are not as powerful as China is now.

GALLAFENT: Indeed, China today is resurgent. Xudong Zhang thinks that's transforming the way people see the Old Summer Palace.

ZHANG: There's a sense of China returning to its more comfortable historic position in history. And therefore you look at this Old Summer Palace and you begin to wonder as if for the first time, how could this thing happen to us? It's unimaginable. Whereas in the early 80s when I was a college student in Beijing, of course it was imaginable! Because we were weak, we were just backwards...We got hit pretty hard. Everything was�it was nothing surprising. But now for the younger generation, this whole thing becomes: utterly unthinkable

GALLAFENT: Zhang says there's another reason for renewed attention on the Old Summer Palace. He says that in the 80s and 90s, Chinese leaders were obsessed by catching up with the west. Now that China has had some success in that area, the new focus is balancing westernization with a kind of "Chineseness." The Old Summer Palace fits the bill. For The World, I'm Alex Gallafent in New York.