If the British Museum isn’t taking good care of relics, Chinese want theirs back

Recently, a short video series titled Escape from the British Museum went viral on the Chinese internet. The three-part series tells the story of how a Chinese artefact – a jade teapot played by a vlogger as a damsel in distress – escapes from the British Museum and finds its way back home to China.

The first episode was released on August 30 but, even before that, the trailer attracted much online attention against the backdrop of a theft scandal at the British Museum. In mid-August, the museum announced that it had dismissed an employee after items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged”. As it emerged that around 2,000 items had been taken, the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, resigned.
The British Museum is one of the world’s largest and best-known museums, housing 8 million artefacts from all over the world that represent a wide swathe of human civilisation. Many of these treasures came from countries beyond Britain.

There have been other thefts at the British Museum over the decades, and the latest scandal has revealed the extent of the museum’s obliviousness and raised questions about its management. Many of the missing items may be untraceable due to the fact that they were not properly catalogued; their disappearance might just be the tip of the iceberg.

Thus, the theft scandal has triggered a broader debate about how the British Museum amassed its huge collection in the first place, and whether it should return objects to the countries they came from.

As a Chinese, I have always had complicated feelings when it comes to the British Museum, which currently has about 23,000 Chinese objects that span the Neolithic age to the present day. Ranging widely from paintings and prints to jade, bronzes, lacquer and ceramics, the objects reflect the cultural richness and diversity of China.

Among the objects are matchless treasures. For example, the museum holds a prized copy of Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies, the painting by Gu Kaizhi, which carries inscriptions by collectors including the Qianlong emperor. The collection also includes sancai (or three-coloured) ceramic figures from the Tang dynasty, as well as paintings from Dunhuang.


Half of Room 33 in the British Museum is dedicated to displaying Chinese artefacts. Here, a large number of pieces of jade and porcelain are packed into display cabinets, not unlike in furniture stores.

It has been said on the Chinese internet that “the best of China’s cultural relics are not in the Palace Museum, but in the British Museum”, and that “no Chinese person can walk out of the British Museum with a smile”.

For China, the history that matters is its ‘century of humiliation’

Indeed, while the sight of these marvellous pieces – each a showcase of the mastery of Chinese art – may stir national pride in Chinese visitors, such feelings are often mixed with grief as the tour of the museum goes on.

China is estimated to have lost millions of antiquities in the period from the first opium war of 1840-42 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Some of the Chinese relics at the British Museum could have been collected during this period, also known as the “century of humiliation”, when China was invaded and plundered, and Chinese people suffered; thus, each and every looted cultural relic displayed overseas still brings a sigh in the long-suffering country.

Furthermore, antiquities ought to be preserved and exhibited under strict conditions with regard to temperature, humidity, lighting and so on. Space is also an important concern.


In the video series, the runaway jade teapot seeks help from a journalist and when it goes to his home, it is surprised to find that it “only holds two people in such a large cabinet”. Many netizens have interpreted this as a commentary on how the British Museum crams precious Chinese objects into display cabinets.

if the british museum isnt taking good care of relics chinese want theirs back 1
Visitors admire two goose-shaped tureens from the Qing dynasty at an exhibition in the National Museum of China in Beijing in 2012. The Chinese ceramics are from the collections of the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo: Simon Song

In recent years, countries including Greece, Ethiopia and Nigeria have asked the British Museum to return relics. With the latest theft scandal, repatriation of Chinese relics has been a subject of heated discussion in China. The state-run English-language newspaper Global Times published an editorial requesting that the British Museum return looted Chinese artefacts.


However, Britain seems to have no plans to return disputed treasures, or to amend the British Museum Act, which prevents the museum from returning any of its collection permanently. In March, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the British Museum collection, including the Parthenon marbles, is protected by law.

Maybe it is precisely because the British Museum is unlikely to return Chinese treasures in real life that the idea of these objects coming to life and escaping on their own has captured the imagination of the Chinese public. To some Chinese, the video series has been a solace.

Interestingly, the jade teapot whose story is told in the video series is not a looted relic, but a real and recent addition to the British Museum collection. This piece, made in 2011, is proof that China has not lost the ancient intricate technique of jade carving, but has brought it to a new peak.


So why would this jade teapot that travelled overseas as a cultural exchange flee the British Museum? A romantic answer, from Chinese netizens, goes: the teapot was sent there in peacetime, and still remembers the way home.

Wei Wei is the former chief correspondent of the Eurasian bureau based in Moscow of China Central Television


South China Morning Post

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