Pillage of archaeological sites and smuggling of cultural artifacts in China has become rampant in recent years despite the law enforcement efforts of the Chinese government. Artifact smuggling is a major threat to the protection of Chinese and world cultural heritage. To address this problem, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, on behalf of the Government of the People's Republic of China, is making a request to the Government of the United States for assistance under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
Human history in China extends back at least 1.7 million years. Early hominid remains such as Yuanmou Homo erectus and Beijing Homo erectus mark China as one of the most important regions in the world for the study of early man. At least 1000 archaeological sites mark the Paleolithic (150,000-10,000 B.C.) throughout the country. Stone choppers and other tools are found in the early part of the period. By the late Paleolithic, many fine stone tools like needles, scrapers, and blades became popular. Finely crafted bone and horn needles and beads testify to the high level of craftsmanship during the period.
The Neolithic Period (Early, Middle, and Late) lasted from 10,000 B.C. to 2100 B.C. Pottery production is the most important aspect of material culture. It is found as early as 10,000 years ago at sites in Jiangxi Province and Hebei Province, making China an important source of study for the origin of this craft. Important early cultures include Yangshao and Majiayao. In the late period, pottery is usually dark grey in many varied shapes and purposes. By the end of the period, pottery from the Longshan culture demonstrates a highly-developed technology and command of form. Examples of this pottery are exquisite in shape, uniformly jet-black, highly polished and egg-shell thin.
Stone tools are highly varied in shape and function and reflect the need to harvest and process grain. Stone sickles, millstones, axes and adzes are common throughout the region. In the late period, large stone spades and ploughs for tilling the fields were developed as well as arrowheads for hunting and fighting.
Stonework was not limited to utilitarian items. The art of jade processing developed as early as 8000 years ago. These were largely used for decorative or ritual purposes in the Hongshan culture of Northeast China and the Hemudu, Dawenkou and Liangshu cultures in east and southeast China. Tablets, tubes, beads, pendants, axes, adzes animal and human figurines have all been found. In the Lianzhu culture, a single tomb might have thousands of these articles.
Types of Late Neolithic sites include cities, temples and tombs. Evidence of large construction projects, water control facilities and other cooperative efforts suggests advanced social organization and an early urban civilization. Evidence of silk production and copper and bronze tools indicate an increasing sophistication in craft production.
The Bronze Age is the first historical period in China. According to records, Xia is the first dynasty. The Erlitou site in Yanshi and Dongxiafeng site in Shanxi province are believed by most scholars to be sites of the Xia period. Distributed along the Yellow River and dated between 2100-1600 B.C., these sites contain complex monumental architecture, a wealth of artifacts in copper, bronze, jade, lacquer, pottery. Some of the ritual bronzes are quite elaborate.
The Shang Dynasty dates to 1600-1100 B.C. Anyang in Henan Province is one of the best known sites of the period. Tombs of kings, nobles, and commoners, palaces, mills, and, most importantly, inscribed oracle bones, have been excavated in large amounts. Over 150,000 oracle bone inscriptions have been found to date illustrating the politics, economy, life, science, technology and religious beliefs of the Shang Dynasty. Bronze ceremonial vessels, statuary, masks, carved jade, ceramics, ivory, horn and bone have all been found in Shang Dynasty archaeological contexts. Even remnants of fine silk and lacquer ware indicate the high level of craftsmanship and artistry of the Shang.
The Zhou people originated in Shaanxi Province, northwest China. Dating to 1100 - 771 B.C., the Zhou Dynasty illustrates further development of Chinese culture. Excavated from the capital of the Zhou Dynasty, over 1000 inscriptions on bronze artifacts and over 17,000 inscribed bone and tortoise shell provide a textual record of the early period. Later, during the Warring States period, literature, science and history began to appear on wooden tablets and bamboo slips. City sites, buildings and tombs of royalty and courtiers include many fine examples of bronze, jade, early porcelain and other materials. Among the most important are a set of 65 bronze bells from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng. Organized into eight groups, this discovery provides important evidence for the development of early music. Developments in iron and bronze technology of the period are equally important. New casting methods allowed for the widespread production of iron agricultural tools. In bronze working, a high level of skill is demonstrated in mixed casting, inlaying, and gold-plating. Fabrics include gauze, damask, brocade and thin silk.
During this period of feudal states in China, the Qin Dynasty instituted the centralized system of state power, and prefectures and counties was created and provided a foundation of political organization for the next 2000 years. Great building projects include the capital city of Xianyang, the Great Wall in north China, and the Kujian Dam in the Chengdu Plain. The importance and power of royalty was expressed in huge royal tombs of rammed earth contained thousands of clay figures of warriors, large numbers of chariots, clay horses and bronze weapons.
The Han Dynasty saw the expansion of China into a vast territory and prosperous economy. The opening of the "Silk Road" strengthened links between China and western Asia. Ancient cities, imperial tombs, monuments and other sites of the Han dynasty testify to the wealth and power of the period. Intricately woven silk fabrics, paintings on silk, writing on bamboo slips are very important artifact types during this period. Other handicrafts such as bronze, jade, lacquer, and pottery also flourished. Of particular interest are the architectural bricks and stones of the Eastern Han Period that illustrate legendary tales, historical events, and daily life.
Following the Han Dynasty, China split into smaller regional states for a period of 300 years. Increased integration, the spread of Buddhism and cultural exchanges with other countries mark the period.
New technological advances in ceramics are evident in celadon ware. Sculpture, painting and calligraphy attained a very high level of sophistication. Large-scale murals cover the tomb walls in the Tomb of Lourui, for example. Great painters, such as Gu Kaizhi, are known from copies of their works.
Buddhism spread throughout China during this period. Great treasures of Chinese Buddhist art are to be found in the caves of Kezi'er Thousand Buddhas, Dunhuang, Maijishan, and others. Stone and terracotta statuary flourished at many Buddhist sites. The artistic styles and Buddhist themes foreshadow the sculpture and painting of the Sui and Tang Dynasties.
Under the Sui Dynasty, the country was reunited and great economic and social development achieved in a short space of time. The Tang Dynasty implemented policies of development and unity. The cultural artifacts produced from the Sui Dynasty and the Ten Kingdoms are exceptional in their quality.
The Imperial Tombs of the Tang are some of the most important archaeological sites of the period. Located around the Shaanxi plain, the tombs often include brilliant tri-colored pottery figures. Wall paintings within the tombs illustrate scenes of sport, hunting or formal events; all are masterpieces of pictorial art.
Great advances were made in pottery technology. White porcelain and celadon developed to a very exacting standard and new color glazes in the Tang period include yellow, green, purple, blue and white.
Lacquer burnished with gold and silver inlay are exquisite in design and production. Silk fabrics show interaction with the west in their design. Many exhibit central and western Asian themes and motifs.
The great wealth of the period is evident in the number of gold and silver vessels. Over 200 cups, bowls, boxes, and incense burners were found in a single site in Xi'an.
Developments in paper-making technology during this period allowed for the production of many types of documents and texts including visas, Buddhist sutras, contracts, and medical treatises. The invention of typography allowed the Chinese to print the first books during the Tang Dynasty. In 1944, the Dharani sutra was excavated from a tomb of the Tang Dynasty in Chengdu.
Buddhist statuary in wood, stone, clay, gold, bronze and porcelain are some of the finest examples of Tang art. Some of the monasteries that contained these artifacts are still extant today. Other underground Buddhist pagodas hold other treasured artifacts. For example the underground palace of Famen Temple in Fufeng has produced over a hundred gold vessels and silverware, and hundreds of pieces of glazed and unglazed porcelain as well as iron, wood and stone vessels.
This is a period of complicated relations and varied political and social relations among the regions of China. The Liao, Jin, Western Xia and Yuan Dynasties were all founded by ethnic minorities in north China. There is great diversity in cultural production. Many small business produced handicrafts. Murals, paintings, and other artifacts indicate that furniture was introduced in this period. Many changes occurred in utensils produced for daily use.
The Song Dynasty was founded by the Han nationality. Science, technology, and artisanship saw great developments during this period. Porcelain, for example, achieved a very high standard of production and was exported widely throughout the world. Printing with wood blocks continued to occur and a new technology clay letters developed.
Liao and Jin Dyasties were founded by the ethnic minorities Qidan and Nuzhen. Occupying the areas of Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Hebei and Beijing, their material culture is known primarily through tombs.
The Yuan dynasty is the state founded by the ethnic minority of Mongolia. Many economic and technological developments took place during this period. In porcelain, under-glaze blue and under-glaze red was developed. Gun-powder and firearms were developed, as well as luxury fabrics.
Most of the standing monuments of ancient China were constructed during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Great Wall, coastal defense systems, the ancient cities of Xi'an, Nanjing and Pingyao are some of the best known. Craft production developed rapidly. Porcelain, silk, enamelware, and wood furniture from this period have a reputation for fine quality.
The rulers of the Ming Dynasty set up official government kilns at Jingdezhen, the capital of porcelain. This and other imperial kilns produced exquisite porcelain vessels in blue-and-white, multi-color, and color glazes that are unprecedented masterpieces of Chinese craft. Most of the pieces produced by the royal kilns were marked with the year of production. Because of its fine quality, Ming porcelain was widely exported overseas.
Silk fabric was produced both in royal mills for the imperial court and for local consumption. New production techniques included gold threading and integrated embroidery. Other technical developments allowed for the tapestry and embroidery that reproduced famous calligraphy and paintings.
Art academies set up by the imperial court developed the inherited painting styles of the Yuan Dynasty. A number of schools of painting appeared during this period, with many masters and followers. Landscape, flower-and-bird, portraiture and line painting from these masters exit to this day.
The Manchu established the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Social and economic development during this period is paralleled by a highly developed handcraft industry. For example, the Qing Dynasty is the golden era of porcelain production in China. Over 40 porcelain production centers existed. The pre-existing production techniques of the Ming were developed further and technique of application of color enamel glazes added to the repertoire. Particularly fine are the porcelain pieces of the Qian Long period.
Silk and enamel ware similarly developed a high level of technical competence.
Many important Buddhist statue, murals, tangkas, and other religious artifacts were kept in the monasteries of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Yunnan and other areas.
Since the mid-19th c., through invasion and other means, foreign powers have looted Chinese archaeological artifacts. From the beginning of the 20th c., adventurers came into China to pillage sites and illicitly remove countless artifacts. Since its inception in 1949, the People's Republic of China has devoted many resources to the protection of its cultural heritage. However, in the last 10 years looting has again become a serious problem.
The world-wide popularity and high prices for Chinese archaeological artifacts have encouraged illegal excavation and smuggling of cultural property. Although Chinese customs and other functional departments have intensified their efforts to crack down on smuggling and illicit excavation, pillage and smuggling continues to be a real problem.
In 1997, for example, Tianjin Customs traced a container of over 4,000 archaeological artifacts which were destined for abroad. Later that year, Tianjin customs identified two shipments destined for South Korea of over 513 pieces including stone horse statues, stone tortoises and Buddhist statuary. In June, a shipment traced to Beijing and destined for the United States contained over 2,200 pieces of smuggled items including ancient porcelain, Buddhist stone statues, and Tibetan sutras. Other examples abound. Although many shipments have been intercepted, others are successfully smuggled abroad for sale on the international market.
This huge demand for Chinese cultural artifacts has caused serious damage to ancient tombs and ancient sites. Gangs of criminals have been identified with their own networks of pillage, transportation, smuggling and sales abroad. The Chinese government has devoted many resources to stopping the pillage and smuggling, but many ancient sites, tombs, stone statuary, and temples are scattered throughout the undeveloped countryside where protection is difficult. For example, from March to August, 1988 a tomb-robbing gang in Hunan Province pillaged over 600 tombs in the region. In 1996, an investigation in Fengcheng City of Jiangxi Province discovered that 187 people participated in the pillage of over 199 tombs. Some of the artifacts had already been smuggled abroad. In Chifeng City of Inner Mongolia, statistics show that in the past 20 years over 6,000 ancient sites have been looted. And in recent years, stone statuary kept in Buddhist temples of monasteries and monuments in the countryside have become desirable to the art market. Over 500 stone statues have been reported looted.
The looting and destruction of so many artifacts from archaeological sites and monuments has caused great damage to Chinese cultural heritage. One notable example are the Tombs of the Marquis of the Jin State in Shanxi Provence. The inscribed artifacts excavated from this site are crucial to the study of the history of the Jin State. However, since the tombs have been pillaged and their artifacts smuggled abroad, the continuity of historical record has been broken. Elsewhere, many stone Buddhist statues dating to the Northern Wei and Song Dynasty were looted. These were important to the study of development of style and chronology of Buddhist statuary, now seriously compromised. These and other examples of looting illustrate the damage to scholarship and knowledge caused by illicit excavation and removal of artifacts.
The Government of China attaches great importance to the protection of cultural heritage and has instituted a system of laws to protect archaeological sites and archaeological objects. In 1950, just a year after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government promulgated the Provisional Methods on the Prohibition of Export of Rare Cultural Relics and Books and the Provisional Methods Governing Survey and Excavation of Ancient Cultural Sites and Tombs. In addition, Article 22 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China stipulates "places of historic interest and scenic beauty, rare cultural relics and other important historical and cultural heritage are protected by the State". Articles on the protection of artifacts are included in the Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China. The Cultural Relics Protection Law of the People's Republic of China was passed in 1982 and amended in 1991. [A new Cultural Relics Protection Law was passed in 2002.] Rules and regulations issued by the Ministry of Culture and State Administration of Cultural Heritage guide the implementation of these laws.
The State Bureau for Museums and Archaeological Data was set up in 1949 and renamed the State Administration for Cultural Heritage (SACH) in 1988. This institution is responsible for the protection of cultural relics throughout the country, planning for the development, rules and regulations, management of sites and museum, approval of archaeological excavation projects, salvage archaeology, and study and formulation of new regulations governing the circulation of archaeological artifacts.
The Ministry of Public Security, General Administration of Customs, and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce also take part in the protection and administration of cultural heritage. Special administrations on protection of cultural relics are set up in the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, counties and cities. Institutes for Archaeological Research and Cultural Artifacts, museums, and institutes for the protection of ancient buildings have been set up by the central government in all regions. These institutions are responsible for survey, excavation, study, conservation, and collection of archaeological remains.
Offices for the protection of cultural relics are set up in each county. These are the grass-roots organs to conserve and administer local archaeological sites and artifacts. Some villages and towns have set up teams to care for sites and cultural artifacts in their areas of jurisdiction.
Museums have existed in China for one hundred years. The first to be established was the Nantong Museum in 1905. By 1982, China had established over 1.900 museums. These museums received over 100 million visitors in the year 2000. The collections include almost 10 million pieces of cultural heritage. Most museums are run by the government and their main financial support is government funding. More recently, however, private museums have opened in a number of cities.
National cultural inventory of archaeological collections was begun in 1989 to enhance the protection of the collections. Inspection, registration, and establishment of an archive is almost complete. Collections are classified into rare and general cultural artifacts. The rare cultural artifacts are further classified into three grades for which there are different protection and conservation standards.
Export of cultural artifacts is regulated by law. It states in the cultural artifacts protection law that, except for those approved by the State Council for the purpose of exhibition overseas, cultural relics with important historical, artistic and scientific value are prohibited from being exported overseas. SACH has set up State appraisal stations for exporting cultural artifacts in 17 cities nationwide. The government has arranged for many college graduates in archaeology to work in the Customs office each year. The regional SACH offices also cooperate with Customs to organize training for Customs staff.
Private collections and the trade in cultural artifact is also regulated by law. Citizens of China may register their private collections with SACH. Citizens may sell their private collections to institutions with collections of cultural artifacts or to cultural artifact dealers as regulated by SACH. Businesses which buy and sell cultural artifacts do so must be approved by SACH or the administrations of provincial, autonomous region, or municipal government and are subject to registration in the Administration of Industry and Commerce. Rare cultural artifacts are subject to the most stringent controls.
In recent years, more regulation of the market has been put into effect through the government Notice on Enhancing the Administration of the Cultural Artifacts Market and the Notice on Rectifying and Regulating the Market Order in the Cultural Artifacts Market (2000). SACH has helped cultural artifact dealers meet the legitimate domestic and overseas demand while cooperating with Customs and police entities to eradicate the black market in illegal transactions, and to punish the criminals engaged in illicit trade and smuggling.
The Chinese government has also cooperated with the international community to protect cultural heritage through ratification of the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1989), UNIDROIT (1995), and the 1954 Hague Convention (1999). The government of China participated in the formulation of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage and plans to adopt it soon. In order to enhance the implementation of these conventions, in recent years SACH has conducted a nationwide public awareness campaign that included experts from INTERPOL, World Customs Organization, International Council on Museums, Art Loss Register and others.
Through INTERPOL or with the cooperation of authorities in other governments, the Chinese government has been able to identify and return many artifacts looted from archaeological sites or stolen from museums. For example, in 1998 the Chinese government received over 3,000 artifacts from the authorities in the UK.
The Chinese government has been very active in promoting cultural heritage protection through public education. In 1989, for example, the Ministry of Culture and SACH issued the Promotion Outline for the Program of Everyone Cherishing the Cultural Heritage of the Motherland.
Museums, memorial halls, and cultural heritage protection institutions are open to the public and provide many programs on cultural heritage protection. Each year over 6,000 artifacts are on exhibit for more than 100 million visitors. In addition, newspapers and journals report recent finds and comment on the important historical, scientific and artistic value of Chinese cultural heritage. Major newspapers have special sections devoted to Cultural Relics Protection Law and articles on cultural heritage protection.
Although the Chinese government has instituted a series of laws and regulations governing the export of Chinese cultural artifacts, the great number of artifacts, their wide distribution within China, and their attractiveness and high prices on the international market has resulted in rampant pillage and smuggling. Driven by high prices, many looted and smuggled artifacts appear for sale in the US market. This has been demonstrated by the appearance of Chinese excavated material in galleries and auctions and in the interception of shipping containers filled with archaeological artifacts bound for US ports.
Some examples include: November 1997, Seattle Customs discovered large amounts of illicitly exported cultural artifacts in containers shipped from Hong Kong. These were returned to Hong Kong. In June 1998, a stone sculpture from Tomb of Yongtai was identified in an auction catalog in California and returned to China. In 1998 and 1999, shipments were identified in New Jersey and San Diego.
Because of the increase in smuggling and illicit export to the US, the Chinese government believes a bilateral agreement imposing US import restrictions on certain categories of archaeological artifacts from China would prove a useful deterrent.
Significance of Chinese Cultural Heritage to the International Community
Cultural artifacts are a reflection of social systems, modes of production, social life, spiritual culture and beliefs of their respective historical periods. They do, therefore, have great historical, artistic, and scientific value for China and for the international community. China boasts rich sources of cultural knowledge and potential for reconstructing history in thousands of archaeological sites and monuments. Some of the most important of these related to the origins of man, domestication of rice and millet, origins of writing, paper, and printing, as well as silk and porcelain technology. In addition, China is one of the few cultures in the world with an unbroken cultural record from the prehistory to the present. Chinese history and archaeology is, therefore, a key to understanding the process of development of human society and civilization.
International exchange of objects and scholars and academic study of Chinese archaeology and history abroad is considerable. The Pacific Rim Prehistory Society, the East Asia Archaeological Society, and the Archaeological Institute of America all hold regular sessions devoted to Chinese archaeology. Countries such as Japan, Britain the United States have established special academic organizations to promote archaeological exchanges with China.
In turn, the government of China has formulated policies to provide for legal support and guarantee for international cooperation. Many international archaeological excavations and study projects have been carried out jointly by Chinese and foreign scholars. Under UNESCO, archaeologists from many countries have carried out a research program on the Silk Road. Since the end of the 1980's, Chinese and US archaeologists have carried long-term regional surveys and systematic excavations in Hebei Province, Henan Province, and Jiangxi Province. There are also many exchanges of students of archaeology between Chinese and US institutions. International cooperation includes preservation projects also. The Getty Conservation Institute has cooperated with the SACH to provide protection of the Mogao Grotto in Dunhuang and the Yungang Grotto in Datong.
The Chinese government attaches great importance to the exhibition of cultural artifacts to promote international exchange. Since 1972, China has organized over 1,000 international exhibitions in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Japan, and other countries. Some of the more recent exhibits include "Imperial Tombs in China", US (1995-1996); "Chinese Civilization and Chinese Art in 5,000 Years", US (1998); "Golden Era of Chinese Archaeology" US (1999).
The People's Republic of China seeks import restrictions on categories of pillaged archaeological material from the Paleolithic Period to Qing Dynasty including, but not limited to: