The Compensations of Plunder: Looting China’s Art, 1790-1930


Prise de la résidence d’été de l’Empereur de la Chine / Wikimedia Commons

Was the removal of antiquities from China simple theft or something more complicated?


By Dr. James Cuno
President and CEO
J. Paul Getty Trust

By Dr. Justin Jacobs
Associate Professor of History
American University


“After you have the institutionalization of the discourse of nationalism, a Chinese bronze that is buried in the ground belongs to the ancient Chinese nation. So now anyone who removes this artifact is a thief.”

From the 1790s to the 1930s, archaeologists from Europe and North America removed tens of thousands of art objects, manuscripts, and antiquities from China and dispersed them among museums and university collections outside Asia. This removal of artifacts took place with the permission and cooperation of local officials, but growing nationalism following the 1911 Revolution led Chinese scholars to view this activity as theft. According to historian Justin Jacobs, however, retroactively labeling it as “plunder” is overly simplistic.

In this episode, Jacobs unravels the shifting cultural, economic, and diplomatic meanings and values assigned to Chinese artifacts by examining the archaeological expeditions of Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, and Langdon Warner in northwestern China, especially around the city of Dunhuang. He pays special attention to the possible motivations of the Chinese bureaucrats and laborers who assisted them. These complicated stories are explored in Jacobs’s new book, The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

JUSTIN JACOBS: After you have the institutionalization of the discourse of nationalism, a Chinese bronze that is buried in the ground belongs to the ancient Chinese nation. So now anyone who removes this artifact is a thief.

CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Justin Jacobs about his new book The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures.

In the decades following the Chinese Revolution of 1911, Chinese antiquities went from being “diplomatic capital” to disputed icons of the emerging nation-state. Justin Jacobs, professor of history at American University, explores the fate of Chinese art and antiquities in his new and highly original book, The Compensations of Plunder. Based on a close analysis of previously neglected archives in English, French, and Chinese, Jacobs recovers the voices of local officials, scholars, and laborers active in the global trade of Chinese antiquities.

Well, Justin, thank you for joining me on this podcast.

From the 1890s to the 1930s, tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts and works of art were taken from the desert sands and mountain caves of Northwestern China by European archaeologists, and distributed to a range of European and North American universities, museums, and libraries. You compare this to the sacking of the Old Summer Palace by British and French soldiers in the wake of the Second Opium War in 1860, and to the despoliation of the Forbidden City by a coalition of eight foreign armies during the Boxer War of 1901. Tell us about those adventures, what the Western archaeologists were looking for, and where today those objects and library materials can be found.

Major powers plan to cut up China for themselves after the Boxer War; United States, Germany, Italy, Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary are represented by Wilhelm II, Umberto I, John Bull, Franz Joseph I (in rear), Uncle Sam, Nicholas II, and Emile Loubet. Punch 23 Aug 1899, by J. S. Pughe. / Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

JACOBS: Sure. So I make a very important distinction, actually, when I compare the foreign military plunder in 1860 and 1901, as part of the Second Opium War, and the Boxer War. I make a distinction between the motivations and the reactions to those instances of military plunder and what the Western archaeologists were doing who went to northwestern China, the ancient Silk Road, and undertook expeditions, and ultimately removed tens of thousands of works of art and antiquities.

And the important distinction here is that in 1860 and in 1901, these were instances of military plunder, and they were criticized as such at the time that they were happening, in the Western press back home. Now, the Western archaeological expeditions, which actually overlap quite well with the 1901 sacking of the Forbidding City, were not regarded as plunder or as theft at the time that they were actually taking place.

Not only by the Western observers back home. They didn’t regard it as theft. But what I was surprised to find is that it was the Chinese as well, in China, who learned about what the Western archaeologists were doing. They didn’t regard it as plunder either. It’s only gonna be in hindsight that views of these archaeological expeditions and archaeologists will change, and they will then in hindsight, sort of get retroactively get lumped into the same category as the military plunder.

Now, what were the archaeologists looking for? they started out looking for traces of themselves. They were looking for material traces of speakers of Indo-European languages. Sometimes it was delineated in linguistic terms; sometimes it was talked about in racial terms—the Aryan race.

But as more and more scholars, and eventually the archaeologists, started to undertake expeditions to this region in order to find these things, they inevitably stumbled upon Chinese art and antiquities, as well.

Now, the art and antiquities that were removed from Xinjiang, from this region of the world, eventually will be deposited mostly in public scholarly institutions around the world. They’re in the British Library, the National Library of France, the Guimet Museum, the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts. Berlin has several museums that have them, and there’s also Japanese institutions that have them as well, from the Ōtani Kōzui Japanese expeditions.

CUNO: And two of the great Western archaeologists were Sir Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot.

JACOBS: Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot are the two giants of this era of archaeological exploration. Pelliot is— becomes famous for really, one single expedition that he undertakes. It’s Stein who’s going to undertake four. Stein’s first expedition is in the year 1900, and he will undertake additional ones in 1906, 1913, and 1930. I structure much of my book and the research around the expeditions of Aurel Stein, because he does them over a 30-year period, that spans the entire era of archaeological exploration by foreigners in northwestern China, and against the backdrop of very different political contexts. He has two in the last decade of the Qing Empire; he has one in the immediate aftermath of the 1911 Revolution in China; and he has one sort of during the war lord era, during the era when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party is trying to establish a new national government in Nanjing, in the south of China.

He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, got his early degrees in German universities, was fluent in German, and then eventually took his PhD at Oxford. And he wanted to further his pursuits of Indology, of Indic languages of Sanskrit literature; and in order to do that, he realized that the best means of doing so would be to take up employment with the British Raj in India. He originally hoped he would get an academic post back in Europe. These were very difficult to get. And he thought, “Oh, in the meantime, I’ll go out into the field, where I might be able to collect new scholarly materials in the free time that I have,” between his various administrative, and eventually, teaching duties. He’ll take up some administrative positions in the Raj. But eventually, he’ll become the principal of a college in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan.

And it’s from there that during the summers, when he’s not teaching and dealing with school business, he’ll start undertaking his own expeditions into Northern India and the northern parts of Pakistan. He’s tracing Alexander the Great. This will be a recurrent theme among the archaeologists. They’re looking for traces of Western influence in the furthest reaches of Central Asia. And Alexander the Great is their lens through which they are trying to search for this.

Paul Pelliot is someone who is not in the initial wave of the very first expeditions, you know, around the year 1900. He undertakes his after Stein has already done one, after the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin has already done some explorations in northwestern China. Then Pelliot decides that he should get into the field and see if he can acquire any sort of additional artifacts and antiquities.

And what’s so special about Paul Pelliot is that unlike Stein, Paul Pelliot was fluent in Chinese. Classical Chinese, as well. He spoke Chinese, he could write Chinese, carry on Chinese conversations and correspondence with Chinese scholars on highly specialized topics in Chinese history.

And so Stein and Pelliot are so famous today because they’re two of the earliest of these archaeologists. Both of them, their fame will derive from their visits to Dunhuang in 1907 for Stein and 1908 for Paul Pelliot.

The ruins of a Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD) Chinese watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang. / Photo by The Real Bear, Wikimedia Commons

CUNO: And you describe them and other Western scholars as those who were engaged in those early adventures as fully conversant with racist scholarly discourses in their search for evidence, for example, of the routes taken by Alexander the Great, as you said, and his armies through Central Asia and into today what is Pakistan and India. What do you mean by these racist scholarly discourses?

JACOBS: Right. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that they subscribed to fairly prevalent ideas of their generation about the evolution of different human races that are more or less now thoroughly discredited. In short, that humans in different parts of the world had evolved qualitatively different cognitive capacities that made some human races more superior than others; and thus, the implications of this are more fit to rule what they regarded as inferior races.

With regard to our archaeologists, there were two major types of ways that they would try to chart the evolution of superior and inferior races, with obvious implications for, you know, disparities in economic and political power in the world that they inhabited as well. One of the criterion was the degree of Greek influence. Alexander the Great and his conquests in what is now modern-day Afghanistan, all the way to parts of modern-day Uzbekistan. And also, they were efficient practitioners of the now-discredited science of anthropometry, which involves taking measurements of various cranial features—foreheads, noses, all these sorts of things—to determine, in what they regarded as precise scientific terms, just how much people had degraded from their initial contact with a superior civilizational force, a superior racial force like the Greeks. Miscegenation, the idea that races could degrade when the Greeks intermarried and intermixed with more inferior local populations. And we see these ideas, you know, pretty often expressed, and in often very casual ways, by many of the archaeologists.

CUNO: Let’s get back to the discovery and removal of artifacts from China to Europe and North America. How did the Chinese authorities divide the region between, for example, German, British, and ultimately the US archaeologists?

JACOBS: So the Chinese authorities themselves didn’t actually divide up the region and say, you know, “Oh, Germans can excavate here; British can excavate here.” They pretty much just handled the administrative burdens of the archaeological expeditions. They issued passports, they produced the paperwork that tracked the movements of the archaeologists, and you know, above all, they wanted to make sure that no incidents occurred.

They’re always afraid that if an incident should occur, if a foreigner should get injured, if he should you know, be in a scuffle with the locals and there’s violence, you know, there could be trouble for the local Chinese official who is tasked with his oversight, because the treaties, or the unequal treaties, would be invoked, giving the Westerners special powers, and it might be a pretext for foreign empires to sort of meddle in China’s domestic affairs.

It was the Western archaeologists themselves who sort of made these what we might describe as informal gentlemen’s agreements with one another about who was going to excavate where. They’re somewhat amusing to read today. Even more amusing is that they didn’t all adhere to these gentlemen’s agreements. And oftentimes, I’m reading the letters and field diaries of these scholars, and you find that they are ranting and raving about each other.

And sometimes it gets quite nasty. At one point, Paul Pelliot, I was reading his correspondence from the field, and once he realized that Stein is not adhering to their oral agreements that he would, you know, remain in one area— And Pelliot is thinking, “Hey, I’ve been staying in this area, not excavating over there, because Stein said he was gonna be here and there and all this.” He then blames it on Stein’s supposed duplicity by talking about his Hungarian treachery. Again, couching it in what he regards as racial terms.

CUNO: Now, you propose a theoretic approach to Western archaeological expeditions and excavations in the non-Western world, one that you say goes beyond the criminalizing and anachronistic discourse of nationalism. Tell us what you mean by this and by the phrase class-based trans-imperial bonds.

JACOBS: Right, right. So here, we’re getting to my overarching framework that I’ve developed from fifteen years of research on this topic. The title of the book, The Compensations of Plunder, you know, that’s sort of tongue-in-cheek. What I really mean is the compensations of cooperation. And it all begins with a very simple observation. Men like Stein and Pelliot, it was clear to me when I started getting into the Chinese source material, that not only were they praised in the West as a heroic man, a great man of science, they’re also praised by the Chinese in almost the exact same terms when they’re undertaking their original expeditions. And yet thirty years later, by the late 1920s, by Stein’s last expedition in 1930, he’s vilified as a thief by the Chinese. We need to explain what change has occurred here.

So I started looking into the different sort of motivations and incentives that people had to interact with the foreign archaeologists. Why did so many people seem to be so eager to help the foreign archaeologists take away what we now regard as priceless treasures? And the realization that I had is that it seems that most people did not regard these art and antiquities as priceless in the same way that the Westerners did. Worthless, profitable, precious, certainly. These were the different types of valuations that the local Chinese and Muslims might have, depending on the circumstances of the objects being removed.

But they didn’t see it quite in the way that the Westerners did. Why is this? And the answer that I’ve come up with is that these objects had not yet been reimagined as the ancient cultural symbols of the modern nations which your empire or state claims to rule, either now or in the future. That’s what the discourse of nationalism will do. And once it does that, it creates abstract claims of collective national ownership that predates the discovery of any given artifact itself.

After you have the institutionalization of the discourse of nationalism, a Chinese bronze that is buried in the ground belongs to the ancient Chinese nation, the abstract Chinese nation, even before it’s unearthed, even before it’s discovered, so long as it’s found within the boundaries of the modern Chinese state. So now anyone who removes this artifact is a thief, because they’ve stolen it from the abstract Chinese nation that is said to own it. So this why I call nationalism an anachronistic and criminalizing discourse.

It’s anachronistic because it really doesn’t arise as something that people are saying in China until after most Western expeditions and collecting activities are over. And I call it the criminalizing discourse because in hindsight, it criminalizes— it reinterprets their activities as criminal acts against the Chinese nation in a retroactive fashion.

I need to propose something to replace the anachronistic and criminalizing discourse of nationalism. And what I come up with, you know, a big part of the compensations of cooperation is understanding what I refer to as class-based trans-imperial bonds. I know it’s a big academic mouthful, but what I’m essentially saying here is quite simple. In social, cultural, economic, and even political sense, the Chinese officials who bore the chief responsibility for the success or failure of a Western expedition in Xinjiang, they identified more strongly, more closely with the Western archaeologists in their jurisdiction than they did with their own what they regarded as socially inferior Chinese or Muslim subjects. They regarded these people as ignorant and backwards and in need of the transformation of civilization.

And so once I realized this was the case, that actually there was some sort of trans-imperial—just across empires—social and political bonding between elite educated men for whom money is not a problem—and they had a shared love of antiquity—I said, I need to take a closer look at the details of these interactions between Western archaeologists and the Chinese and try to understand, what did the Chinese get out of these interactions in exchange for facilitating the removal of antiquities that they did regard as precious, but not priceless in the sense that the Westerners did. And that’s the compensations of cooperation.

CUNO: You also, in your words, “give voice to the voiceless among the local excavators.” What do you mean by this and how does this manifest in your work?

Temple of Confucius of Jiangyin, Wuxi, Jiangsu. This is a wénmiào (文庙), that is to say a temple where Confucius is worshipped as Wéndì, “God of Culture” (文帝). / Photo by Zhangzhugang, Wikimedia Commons

JACOBS: So the Chinese elites, the educated, you know, Confucian gentlemen who occupy the local bureaucracy and facilitate the expeditions, they’re one of the most important elements, probably the most important elements, in the success or failure of a Western expedition; but they’re not the only one. Okay?

So trying to give voice to the voiceless, what I’m referring to are the lower classes, from an economic point of view; the often, at this time, illiterate, poorer classes. Who is going to do the actual dirty work of an actual excavation? Not the Chinese officials. Not the Confucian gentleman. He’s not gonna go out and cook Stein’s dinner, saddle Stein’s camel, sleep out in the open in the winter, you know, sub-zero weather of the desert.

It’s going to be the commoners. And for most of these expeditions, the lower-class commoners are Muslims. They’re the people that we now refer to as Uyghurs. Sometimes these expeditions actually sort of get into what we might think of as China proper, and it’s simply poor Chinese peasants who are going to be recruited for this labor.

So I want to understand, what is their incentive? I’ve already looked at the elite relationship and tried to understand what the Chinese are getting out of this, for helping a Western archaeologist. What are the lower-class Muslims and Chinese getting out of it?

But the problem in recovering the voice of the voiceless is with historical sources. As you know, any historian knows, the illiterate lower classes, almost by definition of the term, don’t leave records behind for posterity. We have to reconstruct their voices indirectly, through records that were produced by literate elites, who then often have their own ideological biases and are prone to denigrating the lower classes with whom they have to interact.

CUNO: Now, what was the structure of archaeological authority in China in the early twentieth century? How did these foreign excavators like Stein and Pelliot get permission to excavate, and if possible, remove ancient texts and objects from the borders of China in the early twentieth century? Was there an administrative entity then like the National Cultural Heritage Administration today? Who governed the authority?

JACOBS: No. The first wave of expeditions— There’s a few in the 1890s, but they really get underway in removing art and artifacts in the first decade of the twentieth century, the 1900s. During that first wave of expeditions, there’s no formal governmental body that’s regulating these expeditions. I mean, you simply, if you’re a foreign archaeologist, you submit an application to your embassy in Beijing. That embassy submits your application for an expedition, for a passport, to the Qing Dynasty Ministry or Foreign Affairs, or the successor Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Chinese Republic, after 1912.

They pretty much always issued a pretty standard passport that told local officials out on the distant Northwestern Frontier, you know, “Help this guy out. Don’t throw any obstacles in his way. Make sure he’s not hurt or the treaties will be invoked and we’re going to be in trouble.” Beyond that, everything is delegated to the local authorities. Which is why it’s so important to reconstruct the local interactions between the foreign archaeologists and the Chinese officials, because that documentation for the early wave of expeditions does not exist in sort of central archives in Beijing.

Permission to excavate is obtained informally from local Chinese magistrates. And what I found is that they were often enthusiastic and eager to facilitate scholarly work like this. They admired the work that they thought the Western archaeologists were doing, and they went well out of their way, beyond any provision in the passports to lend their assistance. Oftentimes, you find that they are going out of their way to say, “Here are some ancient sites that we’ve heard about. Make sure you check this one out.” And then when the foreigners go out and find a new ruin and they bring stuff back, you have accounts in the Westerners’ diaries in which they’re both eagerly looking at what he had found and analyzing it together.

It’s clear that they know what is being removed, and they were part and parcel of the process by which the foreign archaeologist got into the field, was able to facilitate the logistics to undertake an expedition in the winter desert, and then they knew that they were removing these things, as well.

CUNO: So you write that the arrival of the Western archaeologist in the poor and remote oases of Xinjiang was akin to an economic stimulus package, with the added benefits of medical treatment. What did you mean by that?

JACOBS: Right. So this is part of my effort to try to uncover the various incentives of why people are seemingly enthusiastically joining a Western archaeological expedition, because it seems to be voluntary in nearly all times and all places. And what I find is this economic stimulus package is a form of economic capital, chiefly to the illiterate lower classes, for whom economic capital is a rare form of capital.

An expedition, an archaeological expedition is a large and complex undertaking. There are lots of services and goods that the foreign archaeologist needs to contract, needs to purchase. They bring, relatively speaking, to the local economies, these foreign archaeologists bring pretty deep pockets. They all complain that they didn’t get enough money from their home governments and whatnot; but compared to the locals, they had a lotta money.

Most of them spent lavishly. Food, lodging, camels, donkeys, wooden crates that are gonna store all of the objects that you wanna take out of the country. Those have to be built. The wood has to be purchased. You need guides. You need diggers. You need a factotum for your camel caravan. All of these things had a price. And the archaeologist paid it, nearly always at market rates, and sometimes—oftentimes, I might say—at higher than market rates.

And sometimes the archaeologist then also offered services that locally would cost an arm and a leg, but which he offered for free. He offered free services because he knew by doing this for free, it would be a form of goodwill that would further ingratiate him with the locals and encourage them to be favorably disposed towards his archaeological expedition.

Sometimes they ask him to intervene in local disputes over who’s using whose allotment of water from the canal for crops; sometimes they come in and they ask him for medical assistance. And it seems to always impress the locals.

CUNO: Now, what about the Confucian elites? You write that, “as far as the educated Qing Dynasty elites were concerned, the Western archaeologists were doing little more than what they themselves had long done, accumulating culture.” What about that?

Ancestral temple of the Zeng lineage and Houxian village cultural centre, Cangnan, Zhejiang. / Photo by Vmenkov, Wikimedia Commons

JACOBS: So the Chinese, the educated Confucian gentlemen who staffed the imperial bureaucracy, they had long collected art and antiquities. Their tradition of collecting art and antiquities, most scholars described as one of the longest unbroken documented traditions of doing so anywhere in the world. And when the Confucian gentleman collects art and antiquities, he regards it as cultivating his own private virtue. There is a wonderful scholar of imperial China, Patricia Ebrey, at the University of Washington. She has a book; the title of the book is Accumulating Culture. And she says that traditionally, Confucian elites, they accumulate culture as a form of private, social, and political capital.

So from this realization stems the next realization, that art and antiquities, to the Chinese elites, are transferable commodities. They trade these things among their colleagues, among their friends, in exchange for what we might regard as social and political capital.

And when I started getting into the letters that Chinese officials would write to Stein and Pelliot after they had met with them and after they had concluded their expeditions, it was clear to me that in the same mode of interaction and trading and transferrable antiquities with one another, they’re extending that relationship to the foreigners, as well. And they’re bonding over their shared love of scholarship and their shared admiration of antiquity.

And the Chinese oftentimes would even gifts of these artifacts to the Westerns themselves, including the precious manuscripts from the Dunhuang caves. Now, the only real difference here—which I’m not quite sure if the Chinese officials truly realized the implications of this at the time—the major difference is that previously, the accumulation of culture, the stimulation of private virtue when a gentleman collects his own art and antiquities and trades them with his friends, previously, that had only circulated within East Asia, among East Asian elites. And so until it’s eventually lost or destroyed, it’s still somewhere in East Asia, in someone’s private collection.

But when you start transferring these forms of social and political capital to the Westerners, the Westerners take it halfway across the world, and they don’t regard it as their private possession anymore. And thus, it can’t be transferred again. It goes behind a glass cabinet in a museum or a university, and it’s not going to be transferred again. It’s never going back to East Asia.

And I’m not quite certain that the Chinese officials realized that this was a fundamental tweak to the accumulating-culture dynamic that they had previously practiced among themselves and then extended to the foreign archaeologists, as well.

CUNO: What about Chinese archaeologists? Were there many, and were they similarly trained as the Western archaeologists?

JACOBS: No. Not during the first wave of the archaeological expeditions. Maybe 1895 to 1915, there are no Chinese archaeologists that we would think of, in terms of they believe they’re practicing the most modern, latest, cutting-edge methods of scientific inquiry into the past. The Chinese who do start collecting their own antiquities at this time period, the first decade of the twentieth century, they are Confucian gentlemen to generally disdain manual labor. And when they tried to get ahold of their own antiquities, once they saw how much the Westerners were getting, they worked indirectly, through local Uyghur intermediaries, hiring them to do sort of the dirty work for them and then buying whatever the Muslim intermediaries that were commissioned by them, whatever they ended up producing. You don’t get your first Chinese archaeologist who, you know, professed scientific archaeology until the 1920s.

CUNO: This gets us to the Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu, in the library cave from Mogao. Tell us about him and about the library cave and the fate of the so-called Dunhuang manuscripts. Why were they so important and what happened to them? Who differently were they regarded by Chinese authorities than by Western authorities?

JACOBS: Wang Yuanlu is one of the most fascinating characters, for my money, in all of Chinese twentieth century history, and definitely with regard to the archaeological expeditions.

He lays bare all the ironies, the contradictions, and the passions that surround Western archaeological expeditions in China and the loss of China’s cultural treasures. So we might think of Wang Yuanlu as a subsistence digger, which recognized the economic basis of their recovery of ancient artifacts, and the fact that they see them as different than economic and political elites, who infuse them with historical value. He sees them as something that he might be able to use to gain economic capital.

That said, who is Wang Yuanlu? He is a poor, uneducated drifter who is from the heartland of China. He has many odd jobs. I think his family flees his rural area in Central China after a famine or a drought. At one point, he joins the Qing Dynasty military. And then finally, he makes his way to the Buddhist caves outside of Dunhuang, the Mogao Grottoes, or also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves. And there, he decides that he’s gonna make it his life’s great work to restore the caves, which are in great disrepair, falling apart, filled with sand.

CUNO: Was he alone when he got there? I mean, what was it like there at the caves?

JACOBS: The caves were largely abandoned. Not totally abandoned. The local population in the oasis of Dunhuang still made an annual pilgrimage. They would still go and worship the paintings and whatnot in the temples that were at the caves. There were a few caretakers, resident priests, who were at the caves, as well. And there were some pilgrims, religious pilgrims that would come from far away. But by and large, there was not a large human presence at the caves, and they are in great disrepair when he makes his way there.

CUNO: So he wasn’t alone there, but he was alone in charge of the cave, the library cave.

Picture of Dunhuang Cave 16, by Aurel Stein in 1907, with manuscripts piled up beside the entrance to Cave 17, the Library Cave, which is to the right in this picture. / Wikimedia Commons

JACOBS: Right. He is not completely alone, but he seems to be the only one who decides that he’s going to undertake the task of trying to renovate the site, essentially, in his vision for what he thinks the site should be. He has no money. He’s poor, he’s illiterate. So he makes this trip into the oasis of Dunhuang on a regular basis to beg for alms, to beg for money. And what he gets, he then hires laborers to come out to the caves, clear out the sand, redo some of the faded paintings that are falling apart, build scaffolding and whatnot.

And it’s during one of these episodes of restoration that he enters what is now known as Cave 16. He sees this crack in the ceiling of the wall, the plaster. And he thinks that this might indicate that there’s another hollow area on the other side of this that was walled up at some point in the past. Breaks through the wall and discovers what is now known as either the Secret Cave Library or Cave 17.

And what’s in Cave 17 is simply remarkable. It’s one of the greatest discoveries in the history of, you know—I don’t know if I wanna say archaeology, ’cause Wong Yin Lu wouldn’t regard himself as an archaeologist. But nevertheless, it’s this tiny, little receptacle, barely enough room for two people to stand up in. And the walls are stacked high from floor to ceiling, all around four walls, with ancient manuscripts that we now know were deposited in there at some point between the fifth and the eleventh century AD. More than 40,000 manuscripts. Paintings, you know, Buddhist relics and whatnot.

Most of the stuff is in Chinese and Tibetan. About 40% is in Chinese, 40% is in Tibetan; the remaining 20% represent an additional eighteen languages or so. There’s more than twenty languages total that are documented in these manuscripts. Most of it is religious material. The Buddhist Lotus Sutra. There’s over 1,000 copies of the Lotus Sutra alone.

But a small percentage is secular material, inadvertently preserved. The back side of a religious sutra, in which you have administrative records, daily records. I mean, the amount of material that was preserved in here is simply extraordinary. And scholars use it now to actually fill in the gaps of the histories and cultures of peoples and countries all around China today, not just Chinese history, because things were preserved in this cave that were not preserved in other climates.

CUNO: Wang began to distribute some of the material that he found in the cave to local authorities or to local peoples, well before Paul Pelliot comes.

JACOBS: Right. And so that’s the next interesting part of the story. Wang can’t read these materials. He can’t, you know, appreciate their historical significance to educated scholars. He seems them as a form of economic capital, and he has a bright idea. He says, “I’m gonna send these as gifts to local Chinese officials, the most specimens of calligraphy, and see if they’ll send me a donation to the temple, in exchange for this free, you know, precious gift that I’m sending them.

He discovers the cave in the year 1900, and over the next four or five years, he keeps sending these out to local officials. Not one ends up communicating him with in return. He doesn’t get a dime from any of them. What’s also interesting here is that they don’t actually try to come and find, you know, where did he get these from? Are there more?

And what we realize when we look at Wang’s strategy is that he knew what he was doing. He was a shrewd businessman. And he actually deliberately sort of misled the Chinese officials. We can look at the reactions, the diaries of Chinese officials. And they believe that there’s only a couple hundred manuscripts and they’re gone. Wang Yuanlu must have given them that impression.

So when Aurel Stein visits Dunhuang in 1907, seven years after Wang first discovered this manuscript hoard, Wang Yuanlu is really to sell. And he can’t believe that finally, someone is willing to pay what, to him, are enormous amounts of money. And so he sells something like 9,000 manuscripts to Stein. Pelliot gets there the very next year. Another, you know, close to 10,000 manuscripts are purchased by Pelliot.

And after this, each successive Western explorer who visits Dunhuang and tries to enter negotiations with Wang Yuanlu finds that he keeps raising the price. And he keeps trying to lead each of these explorers to believe that this is the last of his stash and therefore, the price is gonna be even higher.

CUNO: How did Stein learn of their being there?

JACOBS: So when the Chinese officials began getting manuscripts from Wang Yuanlu, when he started sending manuscripts to them, they then started trading these among themselves, as private forms of social and political capital. And word is circulating in the Chinese bureaucracy of northwestern China that there are these magnificent manuscripts that originated somewhere from Dunhuang.

And eventually, the Western archaeologists start hearing about these rumors as well, and Stein finally decides, “You know what? I’m gonna go to the source. It doesn’t sound like anyone’s actually tracked down the source of these rumors. How ’bout I go to Dunhuang myself and see if there’s anything still there? Most likely they’re all gone, but I could still appreciate the art. I wanted to see the caves of Dunhuang anyway.” And he gets there and realizes, “My God.” You know, they’ve hardly been touched in the seven years since they’ve been found.

CUNO: And Stein himself didn’t understand the language that they were written in; is that right?

Sir Aurel Stein / Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

JACOBS: So Stein’s training is as an Indologist. Sanskrit, you know, Indic languages. So he has a pretty good grasp of the non-Chinese materials that he’s looking at. So Stein gets some pretty choice selections for things that are related to Central Asian history. Indian history and whatnot, Indic language.

But Pelliot, when he comes the next year, he actually does read Chinese. He also reads many of the languages that Stein reads. And Pelliot is the one who gets the cream of the crop of the Chinese manuscripts, because he is fully conversant with the Confucian canon, with Chinese literature, and he knows the value of the Chinese materials that he’s seen.

I think Stein ends up getting hundreds of copies of the exact same Buddhist sutra in Chinese, which if he knew what it was, he would not have taken it. He wants secular material, too. And Pelliot doesn’t do that. Pelliot knows exactly which Chinese manuscripts are most valuable to historians and scholars, and he ends up taking most of those.

CUNO: Now I’m gonna ask how the Chinese regarded Stein and Pelliot. But of course, there are different kinds of Chinese. There’s the official authorities of China, then the local peoples who might benefit from receiving them and selling these manuscripts on the marketplace. But how are they, as a collected entity, the Chinese, consider Stein and Pelliot?

JACOBS: I would say collectively, if we’re looking at the historical era of these Western archaeological expeditions, you know, you can divide into two general timeframes. During the actual early expeditions themselves—1895 to 1915 or so—they pretty much echo the Western discourse about these archaeologists. That is to say that they are heroic men of science who are trailblazing new scholarly and scientific horizons for the good of all humankind.

And it’s going to be after World War I, after the Chinese Revolution of 1911. By the 1920s, you’re going to get the new view. And it’s not a monolithic view. Not all Chinese subscribe to this view right away. But a very influential camp of scholars in Beijing, chiefly people who are educated in Western universities or Japanese universities, they have a Western education, these are going to be the people who begin to think of Stein and Pelliot as thieves, and adopt the criminalizing discourse of nationalism to discredit and delegitimize everything that they had taken out of China.

CUNO: Now, before then and then through that period, Paul Pelliot and Aurel Stein developed long-lasting friendships with their Chinese colleagues. In Stein’s case, it was a man named Pan Zhen. Describe the friendship, that particular friendship for us, and how common or unique it was that they developed this particular friendship.

JACOBS: This is actually how I decided that, you know, I needed to write a book on this. This was the clincher, is when I go into Stein’s archives at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and I found Chinese-language letters from the Chinese officials that he had met on his expeditions, writing to him after he left their jurisdictions. And once I started reading these, I thought, “My goodness, there’s so much more here to these relationships than meets the eye.” It’s not simply superficial. There’s something very substantive here.

Now, in general, I would say that all the archaeologists developed fairly cordial, and sometimes meaningful, substantive relationships with the local Chinese magistrates. This is the whole class-based trans-imperial bonds among fraternal colleagues of empires, who see themselves at the top of the social and political hierarchy. There were many ways that they could bond with one another.

But sometimes I would get a glimpse of a much deeper relationship. A few rare instances. And as you mentioned, Pan Zhen. Pan Zhen is an official that Stein met on his first expedition in the year 1900, in the oasis of Khotan. Then when he comes for a second and third expedition, he meets Pan Zhen in different administrative capacities. In 1908, Pan Zhen is an official in the oasis of Aksu. In 1914, he’s been promoted to a position in the provincial capital of Ürümqi.

And not only do I have the Chinese-language letters that sort of gives me an insight into the type of friendship that they were cultivating; I also have Stein’s words in his diaries, as well. What’s remarkable about this is that these men actually don’t share a common language. Stein does not speak Chinese well enough to carry on an actual conversation. But I do find in Stein’s archives that he procured English-language translations of the Chinese letters that men like Pan Zhen had sent him.

And even more extraordinary, after Pan Zhen dies—I believe he dies in 1925; he’s about ten, fifteen years older Stein—Stein continues to maintain a correspondence with Pan Zhen’s son, Pan Zuhuan, all the way up until one month before Stein dies. Stein dies in October 1943, in Kabul. And the last letter that he received from Pan Zuhuan, the son of Pan Zhen, is dated September 1943. That means for forty-three years, Stein maintained substantive communication with Pan Zhen and his son.

CUNO: Now, in 1912, the Nantong Museum opened its doors. By invitation only, I think. But what was the significance of this museum opening its doors to— even by invitation only? How important was it to the Chinese cultural history and to your story?

JACOBS: Museums are a key ingredient that you need to have before you’re going to see the process of criminalization of foreign archaeological expeditions. You can’t say that something is theft from the Chinese nation until the Chinese nation has the institutions that sort of substantiate the idea of an abstract Chinese nation. In other words, you can’t say that until you have your own national Chinese museum that represents a plausible alternative to the collecting activities of Westerners. If the Westerners aren’t gonna take ’em, if we leave ’em here, where is our national institution that safeguards these things on behalf of the Chinese nation?

Without a museum, everything belongs to private individuals, from the emperor on down to the local gentry. But not all museums are alike.

You have a few early ones in the nineteenth century that are set up entirely by foreigners—by the British, by the Portuguese, by the French—usually in their colonial treaty port concessions. Those aren’t going to be national institutions that collect things on behalf of the Chinese nation.

The first one that could possibly fulfill this criteria is called the Nantong Museum. I believe it’s conceived in 1905, opens its doors on the outskirts of Shanghai in 1912. And it’s funded and run by a Qing Dynasty reformer known as Zhang Jian. He was very eager about adopting elements of Western civilization into China.

But what’s interesting about this museum is that it still doesn’t really fulfill the criteria of a national museum, because Zhang Jian is still treating it sort of as halfway between the old private collections of Confucian gentlemen, in which you accumulate private virtue through culture, and the ideal of a national museum that collects things on behalf of an abstract nation, from which political legitimacy is now derived.

And so the Nantong Museum, if you look into how it operated, it was by invitation only. You could not simply walk up to the Nantong Museum and go in. It wasn’t really national, in that sense. It was also sort of a regional museum.

You don’t get a national museum that explicitly says, “We collect things, we preserve things, on behalf of the Chinese nation” until the Forbidden City is converted into a national museum. It’s called the National Palace Museum. They have a limited opening in 1915 that is sort of like the Nantong Museum. It’s conditional, it’s very expensive, not everyone can go. You’re not gonna have a full-fledged opening of a national museum in China until 1925. That’s when the Forbidden City formally is inaugurated as the National Palace Museum, open to all Chinese. And not surprisingly, that overlaps with the era of obstruction of foreign expeditions in China, once they have their own national museum.

CUNO: Yeah. Now tell us about that, ’cause this is the time of Langdon Warner, at Harvard, and his two campaigns in Dunhuang, 1923–24 and 1925. And a very different kind of response to his work by the local authorities in China.

Langdon Warner / Harvard University

JACOBS: Right. So Langdon Warner becomes infamous as, really, the first foreign scholar who’s going to find that his expeditions are obstructed by what I refer to as the first generation of Western educated or Westernized Chinese intellectuals in Beijing.

And so Langdon Warner, his background. He is a East Asian art historian from Harvard. And on behalf of the Fogg Museum, he decides that he wants to undertake an expedition to Dunhuang. He says, you know, “Stein, Pelliot, they got all these wonderful things from Dunhuang, from Northwestern China, and now these European universities, libraries, and museums have all these wonderful materials. We should plan, the Americans, it’s kind of embarrassing how little we have.”

And so in order to fill up the Fogg Museum, he does an expedition in 1923, to Dunhuang. And it’s during this that he actually removes, I believe it’s eight murals, from the Mogao Grottoes.

CUNO: By cutting them out of the walls of the cave.

JACOBS: Cutting them out of the walls of the cave. Now, you know, he’s doing this because he’s in different circumstances than the first generation. You know, Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot, there was a lot for them to collect. By 1923, Cave 17 is empty. You know, Wang Yuanlu doesn’t have any more manuscripts to sell. What is Warner going to get? And he actually conceives the idea of cutting out entire murals and taking them back home. And his inspiration for this, he tells us—and there’s no reason, really, to doubt this—he says that after the Russian Revolution, some White Russian partisans had fled into China. The local Chinese governor had interned them in Dunhuang, and they whiled their leisure hours by defacing the murals in the Dunhuang caves, leaving Cyrillic, you know, graffiti and whatnot. And he says, you know, “The Chinese aren’t protecting this. I have to take it away, or else Dunhuang is gonna be totally destroyed, if we leave it, you know, and don’t do anything.” And so he removes these things.

What he doesn’t know is that the actions that he undertakes are discovered by the Chinese afterwards. How are they discovered? It’s the local illiterate lower class peasants of Dunhuang. They still go to the Dunhuang caves to worship them every year around April and May. It’s part of their religious practices. And they discover that he has basically desecrated their gods. And this is 1923. They’re suffering from drought, there’s warlords all over the place, and they think that this was one of the reasons why they’re in such dire straits. Warner has desecrated their gods.

They go and they actually detain the local Chinese magistrate and demand that Warner return what he had taken. It’s not the Chinese official. Warner told the Chinese official what he had done, and the Chinese official, according to Warner’s private letters, was apparently okay with it. He simply asked Warner, “Did you see any manuscripts?” ’Cause that’s what the Confucian gentlemen of the old generation are interested in, the written record, not what to them, were regarded as vulgar artwork that was worshipped by the masses. And so it’s actually the illiterate peasants of Dunhuang who raise a ruckus and demand that these things come back.

But by then, Warner’s long gone. But word gets out of what he’s done, because you have this uprising at Dunhuang after he leaves. And when he comes back for a second expedition in 1925, the Westernized or Western-educated Chinese intellectuals at Peking University in Beijing, they’re ready for him this time. They know what he’s going to do in advance. This is the generation of Chinese is that pretty much a mirror of Stein and Pelliot now. They are Westernized. They also adopt the priceless nationalist evaluation of these antiquities, and they obstruct Warner behind the scenes.

CUNO: Now, I was director of the Harvard Art Museums for twelve years in the 1990s and the early 2000s, and twice, I visited Dunhuang on official business, to meet with Dr. Fan, the great director of the site. While there were negative comments made about Warner’s actions at the time, there were never any formal requests for the return of objects from Dunhuang, either by Dunhuang authorities or by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage. Does that surprise you, given the earlier history of opposition to Warner?

JACOBS: No, it doesn’t surprise me. I think if you survey the history of the obstruction of Western archaeologists and collectors throughout the entire world, you actually find that such formal requests for the return of these sorts of things are actually pretty rare.

Now, with the stuff that Warner removes specifically, there are a few things to keep in mind. One is the fact that the murals that he took themselves were badly damaged, and thus they didn’t have a ton of scholarly value, or even display value. You know, they’re not the centerpiece showcase items that you’re going to put in a museum. They were badly damaged in the process of removal.

The obstruction of him on his second expedition was also behind the scenes. It wasn’t out in the open. So you actually don’t have a whole lot of documentation, formal documentation, that shows that he knew what he was doing was wrong.

There’s many different reasons why countries will not formally make a request. You know, it’s difficult to prove your case, and you might be rejected. And that’s kinda humiliating, in some contexts.

CUNO: Now, in your experience, what is the current Chinese view of the contributions of Stein, Pelliot, and Warner to the world’s greater understanding of the history of Xinjiang? How does it differ from the current views of Indian, French, and British scholars?

JACOBS: There are pretty diverse views. I think that some scholars on both sides regard them as little more than an arm of Western imperialism, in a morally discrediting way.

Generally speaking, however, I would say that the predominant operation is that most scholars outside of China have a fairly unabashed respect and admiration for men like Stein and Pelliot. They’re seen as true scholars. And even though they may have had some dubious methods, that may have gone too far and whatnot—yes, they may share imperialist and racist attitudes of the day—nevertheless, they were still pretty great men who, in the aggregate, what they did for scholarship and posterity outweighs the negatives. I mean, they give us so much new material, and it’s so vastly improved our understanding of the history of so much of Eurasia.

Where international collaboration of some sort is involved, this gets interesting. You know, when you have Chinese scholars and Western scholars at, let’s say, some sort of international conference or a symposium, I’ve found that most people seem to have agreed not to talk about the elephant in the room. This is sort of a topic that’s best avoided. Passing some sort of harsh judgment on these men, really getting into the details of what they did and whether it was right and wrong, you sort of just acknowledge, yeah, they did some questionable things and whatnot, but they facilitated lots of new research.

In a domestic Chinese context, when Chinese scholars are writing for a domestic Chinese audience, usually the tone will be a little bit different. The starting assumption is that this was illegitimate theft. And words like theft and plunder will simply be thrown in without quotation marks or anything like that whatsoever. That’s what this was.

Sometimes, though, outside of Chinese academia, you’ll still see a diversity of views, which can be confusing to an outsider. I remember one time watching CCTV, Chinese Central Television, and they had a whole documentary series on the Silk Road explorers. It was in Chinese, for a domestic Chinese audience. And men like, you know, Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, Paul Pelliot, they were treated the same way that you might treat them in a Western context, sort of: these are great men; they were heroes of science. And there’s a lot of excitement that can be mined in their expeditions for public entertainment. And so there are these sort of mainstream views outside of Chinese academia that can be different from what you will see in the official Chinese view.

What I have found is that pretty much the only thing that everyone can agree on is that Langdon Warner did some pretty odious things. And the last twenty years or so of scholarship, both Western scholarship and Chinese scholarship, it’s pretty much been open season on him. This is made easier due to the fact, I also think, that there aren’t a whole lot of redemptive aspects to what he did. It’s not like he took away a lot of stuff and although, yes, this was plunder, it has great scholarly value. I mean, he damaged what he took in the process of taking it. So most people are content to agree that Warner is one of the worst of the lot.

CUNO: Well, Justin, your book Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost its Treasures is a richly-textured and original account of the history of and ideological framework behind China’s cultural heritage. It’s an original and important book. And thanks so much for speaking with me about it for the Getty podcast episode.

JACOBS: Thanks so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.


Originally published by The Iris, 12.09.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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