China Opens Treasures to Foreign Scholars

Article excerpt

FOR years, archaeologist Yan Wenming crusaded to open China's unexcavated riches to outside research. He met official resistance as imposing as the Great Wall.

Now, amid spreading reform, the Chinese economy is booming and the government has begun unshuttering the vast archaeological trove hidden from foreign scholars for more than four decades.

No surprise, says Mr. Yan, a professor at Beijing University. "The story of Chinese archaeology shows that when a nation is economically weak it closes. But when it is strong, it opens."

Two years ago, the government officially ended China's scholarly isolation and welcomed Western and Asian experts to join its archaeologists in the field.

To date, however, only a handful of projects have been approved by the ponderous bureaucracy, a symptom of the transition under way in Chinese archaeology.

"They are making a major transition from a more historic level to an anthropological {scientific} level," says Richard Macneish of the Andover Foundation of Archaeological Research in Andover, Mass.

"They are very interested in studying the customs of primitive people to understand social relationships," he says. "Until now, this was not done under communism because they thought they had the best system. There's been a major shift."

Foreign know-how and money will be crucial in uncovering and preserving China's cultural heritage, experts say. Yet, ironically, the lifting of scholarly restrictions coincides with rampant looting of artifacts, smuggling to the West, and government disarray over liberalizing an- tiquities sales in an emerging market economy. Objects that are more than 200 years old are not allowed to be sold.

According to the State Administration of Customs, more than 14,000 stolen artifacts are recovered yearly, even though China has executed people for stealing and exporting valuable art.

In the last five years, more than 10 percent of China's 350,000 antiquities sites have been robbed. The government has doubled its funding to protect antiquities to $40 million yearly, although that is still vastly inadequate for the task.

Western observers say it will be difficult for China to regain control of its archeological sites as economic reforms trigger disarray and corruption in many provinces. "Provincial officials control the access. They think the relics are theirs so they can make money," says a Western archaeologist with extensive experience in China.

Last month, eight people were arrested for stealing artifacts from a museum in central China. Some observers have proposed selling duplicates of valuable artifacts to raise money for protecting the remainder.

"Smuggling and robbery are partly caused by criminal gangs and partly caused by our own policy," Zhang Deqin, director of the State Bureau of Cultural Relics, said. "But if we open the cultural relics market and sell as we sell cabbages and turnips, the result will be chaos."

"I'm worried that China is bleeding its heritage," says Yan, the Beijing University archaeologist. "But it's not a question of liking the free market or not. It already exists."

IN the meantime, foreign scholars are only beginning to get access to sites that they hope will further understanding of the origins of the Chinese people and distinctive features of Chinese life such as kinship, agriculture, religion, art, and authoritarian government. …