Thursday, August 20, 2020

Justin M. Jacobs's "The Compensations of Plunder"

Justin M. Jacobs is professor of history at American University. He is the author of Indiana Jones in History and Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State. He also serves as editor of The Silk Road journal and hosts Beyond Huaxia, a podcast on East Asian history.

Jacobs applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Compensations of Plunder consists mostly of an image and its caption. The image depicts 23 lines of handwritten comments in Chinese that were appended to the end of an ancient Buddhist manuscript. This “colophon,” as such appended comments are known, was written in 1910 by a Chinese official named Zhao Weixi, who served in the Qing Empire (1644–1912). The Buddhist manuscript itself—a copy of the Great Nirvana sutra—was much older and dated back to the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Along with some 40,000 other ancient manuscripts, it had been sealed away inside a hidden cave in the Mogao Grottoes near the desert oasis of Dunhuang for about 900 years. (This cave and its ancient manuscripts serve as the backdrop for the cover of my book.) In the year 1900, an illiterate Daoist priest named Wang Yuanlu discovered the hidden cave and began to look for a way to turn a profit on all these ancient manuscripts. When the first few batches of manuscripts he sent to nearby Chinese officials failed to elicit the desired cash “donations” to his temple, Wang decided to sell the remaining ones to foreign scholars, who eventually took tens of thousands of them abroad. The colophon depicted in the image on page 99 was added by Zhao to the end of one of the few manuscripts from the secret cave “library” not to have been taken out of China by foreign scholars.

Read out of context, the page 99 test probably would not give readers a very good overall sense of what my book is all about. Instead, it presents an important piece of evidence in support of a single—but critical—pillar of my overall argument. In short, I argue that the reason why Westerners were able to remove so many works of art and antiquities from China during the early twentieth century was not because of theft or plunder, as is often assumed today. It was because the people of China themselves had very different views of the value of art and antiquities at the time—and it was these views that conditioned people from all walks of life to allow Westerners to remove their country’s treasures in exchange for various forms of “compensations” that were perceived to be of greater value than that which was taken away.

The Chinese colophon appended to the Great Nirvana sutra on page 99 helps to illustrate one of these different views: that of the educated Chinese elites. In his colophon, Zhao Weixi provides us with two significant clues as to what sort of valuation he placed upon the ancient Great Nirvana sutra in his possession. First, he identifies the chief value of the manuscript in social and political terms. Zhao describes how he received his sutra as a gift from one of his colleagues in the Qing imperial bureaucracy. “How can I ever forget the favor bestowed upon me by the Garrison Commander?” he writes. Second, Zhao treats the manuscript itself as a living symbol of his relationship with the Garrison Commander, a man named Chai Hongshan. This is why he feels comfortable in adding his own words on top of an ancient scroll, something that the Western scholar would likely regard as an act of vandalism. As a result, the first several chapters of my book show how Chinese officials and scholars such as Zhao Weixi tended to treat Western archaeologists and collectors in the same way that they treated each other: as fraternal colleagues of empire, who could offer their Chinese counterparts a host of desirable resources—or “compensations”—in exchange for something perceived at the time as being of equal or lesser value. And it was this sort of an informal “barter” relationship that ultimately explains how China—and, I would argue, most other non-Western countries—lost their treasures.
Learn more about The Compensations of Plunder and Justin M. Jacobs's work.

--Marshal Zeringue