On my second trip to New York last week, I finally got a chance to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’d been dreaming about this for a long time, not only because of its reputation for being one of the four greatest museums in the world, but also because I see it as an archive where the most gorgeous cultural collections from all over the world are displayed.
A three-hour visit made it impossible to view all of the collections. Being most familiar with Chinese culture, I chose to focus especially on the Chinese collections. A history of nearly 5000 years has endowed this nation with a great amount of cultural treasures, which vary by region and time period. In ancient China the most valuable handcraft treasures, such as decorations, paintings, and calligraphy, were kept by the imperial palace or the nobles.
In addition, there is another kind of treasure which not only has material value but also
spiritual value, but also spiritually. For example, in many dynasties, Buddhism was advocated and admired by the emperors, so figures of Buddha were built across the nation. This summer, I paid a visit to the most grand and magnificent historical remains of Buddhist art in existence, the Dunhuang Cave (also known as Mogao Grottoes), located in Gansu Province, China. Bearing in mind that these works were done more than 1500 years ago (some of the works were revamped during the following dynasties), I was touched and impressed by the exquisite craftwork.
Treasures do not travel by themselves. The Silk Road was regarded as the first path towards the “outside world” from ancient China. The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was the most prosperous period throughout the country’s history. Both commercial trade and
cultural communication with other nations reached the peak at this period. However, things went backwards a little bit for the following dynasties. In the late Qing Dynasty, because of the corruption of the Qing government, communication with other countries was almost cut off and China gradually became “isolated” from the rest of the world. The First Opium War broke out in 1840, because of the trade contradiction between China and the UK. A series of wars followed afterwards, and China suffered from not only death and injury, but also the cultural plunder. In 1860, in the middle of the Second Opium War, the English-French Allied Army broke into the Yuanming Yuan imperial garden (also known as the Old Summer Palace) in which thousands of precious art collections were kept and gorgeous architectures were built. They robbed the collections and set fire to the buildings, leaving almost nothing.
Likewise, the Buddhist art also went through a similar disaster. As I mentioned above, the Dunhuang Cave has been thought of as a grand representative of Buddhist art, and its Buddha figures, frescos and Buddhist classic scrolls stored there have long attracted collectors from all over the world. In the most recent 100 years, a great number of these antiques were stolen, robbed, and destroyed by foreign collectors.
Standing in front of the elegant Chinese collections in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, my feelings were quite complicated. On the one hand, I felt so proud of the profoundness and glorious Chinese culture, while at the same time, I also felt a disgrace deep in my heart since we lost these treasures because of the weakness of our nation in history. Anger also arose for the barbarity and disrespect of some western countries for taking away the Chinese treasure. However, I felt lucky that these precious treasures can be so well conserved here with careful protection. As many know, during the Culture Revolution many valuable antiques were damaged due to political reasons. Those that were robbed earlier, however, escaped the disaster and are now displayed to a universal audience, highlighting the Chinese culture to the whole world. In other words, to some extent, the disrespect of foreign armies and collectors has actually helped the spread and conservation of Chinese cultural treasure.
I’m not saying that Chinese people should forgive the outrage conducted by some western countries, but rather I’m trying to emphasize the importance of recognizing the value of culture relics and taking action to protect them. Culture travels around the world in different ways. Hopefully in the future it can travel on its own feet rather than in others’ hands.