Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stolen Art and the Epistemes of Imperialism

Recently, on December 16th 2009, in the New York Times an article by Andrew Jacobs entitled China Hunts for Art Treasures in U.S. Museums repeatedly bashed the Chinese government for their assertion that certain cultural relics held in western museums were in fact stolen from the Summer Palace in 1860. In the article a professor of Chinese Studies at Duke University referred to China as “An adolescent who took too many steroids” and made other culturally insensitive and provocative statements. Kang’s statements are misguided at best. James L. Hevia’s English Lessons: the Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China, published by Duke University Press in 2003, tells the story of the reterritorialization of China and the brutal rampaging and burning of the Chinese Summer Palace in 1860, largely for the purpose of insuring that China would be forced to accept the importation of Opium against the Emperor’s wishes in 1860, at the hands of western imperial powers. Intricately related to this process, both military exhibitions and the production of knowledge aided western powers in their remapping of China in an image suitable to western interests.

With the second Opium War’s conclusion in 1860 China was forced to change. After seeing first hand the power of western military technology the Qing government sought to acquire similar weapons and hire Westerners to train their armies to use them. China clearly wanted these technologies to protect themselves from the changes which the English sought to introduce. A stipulation of a tariff conference in the Tianjin Treaty led directly to the Shanghai Tariff Conference, which Hevia explained for westerns meant they could reorder the thinking of Qing officials in terms of how westerners preferred to be dealt with in future delegations. The very manner in which the negotiations took place reordered the manner of Chinese official dealings with outside sovereigns and international traders. Westerners keenly sought to train the Chinese in how to approach western powers: on the terms that western powers wanted.

Among other arguments that Hevia makes, he claims that western domination in Asia was maintained through the development of comprehensive knowledge about peoples under imperial rule. The production of knowledge about China had a significant impact beyond the humiliation by military conquest and its accompanying looting, which obviously played a significant role as well. The process of epistemological development participated in the remapping of China into the image of a western nation. China was forced to learn the interstate game by western rules of protocol and etiquette; for China this meant interacting with other sovereigns at all.

Through the standardization of information and the creation of new and novel ways of knowing China and indeed its inhabitants that western writers, cartographers, and other participants were able to contribute to the cause of remapping China into the international community. These producers of knowledge narrated the western agent as a victim of Chinese aggression, while it was the European who was an unwelcome force in China. The settlements allotted by the treaties signed in 1860 gave westerners the right to appropriate space for themselves. This space provided for further educational opportunities for the Europeans to teach the Qing court of their interests, namely that they ought to be those of Britain. Hevia’s is a thick book, which is immensely quotable. Along with military might the production of novel epistemes also remapped, literally also, the geography of China.

Liu Yang, a Beijing lawyer was quoted in Jacob’s article as saying the “The wound is still open and hurts every time you probe it,” with reference to the stolen art held in German, American, British, and French museums, all of these powers having actively participated in the looting of the palace and following lessons in western diplomatic etiquette. Michael Conforti, president of the Association of the Art Museum Director, recently made the claim that we now live in what he calls a “post-repatriation environment.” In spite of his claim to the contrary repatriation of stolen art and artifacts is still actively ongoing. Whereas he and other possessors of stolen art would like to hold onto these pieces, perhaps their rightful place is in the hands of those to whom they belong. In a way the possession of these pillaged art pieces represents the whole brutal mentality of colonialism. Maybe with their return some of the wounds of the imperial project could begin to mend.

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