The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures – an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book

chinese-archeology-1170x550 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book

This a video talk given by Dr. Justin M. Jacobs, about his new book: The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures. Dr Jacobs gives an overview of what looks to be very fascinating study which challenges (contemporary) established narratives surrounding the removal and looting of objects from China during the late 19th and early 20th century. This is definitely a book I plan to add to my permanent collection along with The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures.

Essentially, what Jacobs discusses is how, throughout his initial research (which ironically was for a completely different book), he perpetually stumbles across evidence that clearly demonstrates that the removal of art and antiquities from China by Western archaeologists was generally undertaken with the full knowledge, consent and often with the assistance of Chinese officials and scholars.


The-Compensations-of-Plunder-How-China-Lost-Its-Treasures-Silk-Roads-1 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book

The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures

From the 1790s until World War I, Western museums filled their shelves with art and antiquities from around the world. These objects are now widely regarded as stolen from their countries of origin, and demands for their repatriation grow louder by the day. In The Compensations of Plunder, Justin M. Jacobs brings to light the historical context of the exodus of cultural treasures from northwestern China. Based on a close analysis of previously neglected archives in English, French, and Chinese, Jacobs finds that many local elites in China acquiesced to the removal of art and antiquities abroad, understanding their trade as currency for a cosmopolitan elite.

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Why? Because in exchange, they received various forms of “capital” or compensations which were deemed more valuable at the time than the particular objects in question.

Now current narratives surrounding this topic in China are primarily driven by highly charged nationalist themes intended to shore up support for those currently in power, however these narratives are generally careful distortions of historical events with one the goals being to vilify certain historical figures. The truth however is often much more complex and in some case even inconvenient.

Qing-Dynasty-Passport-1024x763 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book
Qing dynasty passport

A couple of interesting takeaways:

  • The famous British archeologist Aurel Stein maintained close relationships with multiple Chinese officials who considered him a close friend, an equal in terms of status, and a man to be greatly admired an a modern scientist and explorer.
  • Antiquities were often used a diplomatic capital and some antiquities were in fact given as gifts. Antiques at the time were seen as private possessions to be possessed, used and even modified (as in cut up), rather than as state property. Antiquities were used as the currency of gentlemen. These were perceived merely as privately owned commodities.
  • The idea that antiques were priceless and the property of a nation becomes a part of the mindset as a result of western educated Chinese. In other words this western concept that antiquities are a necessary part of the political legitimacy of the nation, is an idea that was adopted and brought back into China as opposed to being an indigenous concept.
  • The Chinese themselves were initially not particularly interested in non-Chinese artifacts, ie indict languages, silk road material etc.
  • This shift toward such antiquities being national property didn’t start until post 1920.
antique-shop-in-khotan-1024x714 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book

The talk itself (aside from the book) is fascinating enough and worth viewing. Too much to cover here but well worth watching and probably buying the book as well.

Enjoy!

qing-dynasty-official-1024x819 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book
Qing Dynasty official and antiquities collector Duanfang
antique-chinese-scrolls-1024x695 The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures - an online talk with Justin Jacobs about his new book
manuscripts found in the Dunhuang caves

(Below is backup copy of the video in case it goes offline on Youtube)

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