Reactionaries? Make That ‘Collectors’

From the New York Times:

Some four decades after the Cultural Revolution, when many of the country’s centuries-old treasures were defaced or destroyed as a result of Mao’s command to eradicate “the four olds” — old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits — China has reversed its attitude toward antiques. Ming dynasty porcelain vases, 19th-century hardwood furniture and even early 20th-century calligraphy ink pots have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge. The antiques market has become so hot, in fact, that it has given rise to a new category of must-see TV here.

…While some in the antiques world laud these programs for turning antiquing into a national pastime, others are skeptical of their educational value. As Yan Zhentang, the president of the Chinese Collectors’ Association, noted, “These shows certainly help get ordinary people interested in antiques, but the bottom line is they are just entertainment, and they make mistakes.”… The Chinese government has become increasingly assertive about claiming ownership of its national heirlooms. It condemned Christie’s last year for auctioning bronze sculptures looted from the capital’s Old Summer Palace in 1860 and, more recently, it sent outgovernment officials and art historians to inspect the collections of global art institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian for cultural artifacts that might have been illegally obtained from China. And so, many private collectors have come to regard their passion not just as a smart investment, but as a patriotic duty.

“Chinese people are becoming richer and need to be responsible for our dignity and history,” said He Shuzhong, the deputy director of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage’s legal and policy department and the founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a nonprofit organization. “How can China rise peacefully if we cannot protect our culture?”… As Yan Xubao, 31, a dealer at the ACF China furniture company in the Gaobeidian market on the outskirts of Beijing, observed, “Without a free capitalistic spirit, these antiques would still be buried in the countryside somewhere.”

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