I can’t believe how badly the New York Times missed the point this morning in its article on the newly red-hot antiquities trade in China. Journalist Dan Levin reports on the growing mania among middle class buyers in Beijing for Chinese antiquities, extolling their newfound passion for ” Ming Dynasty porcelain vases, 19th century hardwood furniture and even early 20th century calligraphy ink pots.” Such antiquities, Levin explains, “have become popular status symbols for an emerging middle class eager to display its new wealth and cultural knowledge.”
Too bad Levin didn’t ask a few hard questions about exactly where all these Chinese antiquities are coming from. If he had, he might have come away with a very different impression. While researching a new story for Archaeology magazine, I recently discussed with Victor Mair, a Sinologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and one of the world’s leading experts on the archaeology of Xinjiang province, this very issue.
I had noticed in Mair’s articles that many of the most important Bronze Age and Iron Age sites in Xinjiang–sites that have yielded European-looking mummies and western grave goods and that are now revolutionizing our understanding of Central Asian history–had been badly looted. In fact, looting in Xinjiang has become so serious that Chinese archaeologists are constantly forced to excavate entire cemeteries just to salvage and protect some of the finds.
I asked Mair what on earth was going on. The Xinjiang sites, after all, are in the midst of a huge and very barren desert–one of the bleakest and most remote places on earth. Mair explained to me that Chinese looters have become very sophisticated. They journey into the desert equipped with GPS and specifically target the ancient cemeteries there. The devastation is enormous, Mair explained, with mummified human body parts strewn everywhere. “They just take the bodies, the heads, the coffins and throw them out on the ground,” he said. “They are looking for gold or they are looking for something that is obviously a nice artwork.”
Most looters then sell their finds to middle men in Hong Kong, individuals who don’t ask any questions. “You can go down to the antiquities market street there,” said Mair, “and you can find unbelievable things, precious materials or precious objects from all over China being sold there. So Hong Kong is like a door for selling.”
To me, this is the real story behind the newfound enthusiasm for antiquities in China. And there is a terrible irony here. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong ordered the destruction of “old culture,” officially condoning the looting of old cemeteries and destroying antiquities. Now the pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction, as the Chinese middle class celebrates its ancient culture. But the change in attitude has only led to further destruction of the archaeological record.