Friday, November 23, 2012

圓明園 Yuan Ming Yuan Zodiac Fountain

Yuan Ming Yuan imperial garden in Beijng was constructed in Qing Dynasty in 1700s.  Much of the design was done by Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione.  The garden featured a mixture of traditional Chinese and French baroque architecture.  One of the featured section of the garden is the Zodiac fountain.  There are a total of 12 zodiac statues representing Chinese horary cycle.  Each statue is carved of stone with human body and clothes but with bronze animal head.  The animals are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.  This is the exact same sequence for animal representing Chinese years.  Each would spout water for two hours.  Unfortunately during the second opium war, the imperial garden was sacked by Lord Elgin's (the one who "borrow" the Elgin marbles from the Parthenon) troops and the French.  The 865 acre garden was burned to the ground.  Valuables such as the bronze zodiac fountain heads were looted and taken out of China.

The bronze statue heads do come up for auction from time to time at Christie's and Sotheby's.  The last two, rat and rabbit, came up for auction at Christie's few years ago to the dismay of Chinese government.  China feels because these are looted items, they should be returned to China without Chinese government buying them back (although they more of less did so for the other five that they currently have).  A known Chinese dealer bid for the heads at the fame YSL/ Pierre Berge sale at Christie's but refuse to pay afterward as a form of protest.  I would love to have one of these bronze heads as an interior decoration; kinda like when people put carved Greek marble heads on commodes although I do recognize that this particular set of bronze head is quite important to China culturally.  I think the best thing would be either reunite all the bronze heads or at least have them in various museums throughout the world so people can see them.  Surprisingly they are not in any museum collections except the ones in China.     

Here's the status of all 12 bronze heads:

Rat: Collection of Pierre Berge & YSL
Ox: Purchase for/by Chinese government
Tiger: Purchase for/by Chinese government
Rabbit: Collection of Pierre Berge & YSL
Dragon: MIA
Snake: MIA
Horse: Purchase for/by Chinese government
Sheep: MIA
Monkey: Purchase for/by Chinese government
Rooster: MIA
Dog: MIA
Pig: Purchase for/by Chinese government

I was at a movie theater recently and saw the commercial for CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac) by Jackie Chan.  I had no idea he is coming out with a movie on these bronze heads!  I'm sure with this movie, the bronze heads that Pierre Berge & YSL own will get even more famous/infamous.  I would not be surprised that they have already been (or soon will be) bought by some Chinese businessmen and repatriated them back to Chinese government.  Which leaves one to questions where are the other 5 bronze heads?  Probably hidden deep in some European aristocrats' attics waiting to be discovered...

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