Elginism: The Chinese lose their marbles over excesses of an English Earl

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 11, 2013

Bronze Dragon at the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity, Summer Palace

David Cameron’s record in the last few weeks has been patchy: He posed for a selfie in Jo’burg. And he got the Chinese all steamed up about Elginism all over again. Despite everything the breathless media coverage suggests, the anti-Elginism is more interesting than the selfie. To understand why, one has to understand the subtle nuances of Elginism, which isn’t really a word but a fairly well developed concept. ( Or so the Encyclopaedia Britannica points out.) The looting of a country’s cultural treasure is not a 19th century problem either, an offence so far in the historical past that someone as long ago as Byron wrote about it.

(In ‘The Curse of the Minerva’, Byron bemoaned the removal of the Parthenon Marbles by Thomas Bruce, aka the 7th Earl of Elgin and British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He did it again, in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:

Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!)

Though they can’t claim that inimitable Byronic cadence, the Chinese are getting pretty exercised about Elginism all over again. They were apparently reminded of the sacking of Beijing’s Summer Palace by David Cameron’s recent three-day visit and Weibo, the Chinese social media site, has been atwitter with indignation. In 1860, the British and French armies looted the poetically-named Garden of Perfect Brightness (among other things) and according to the director of the Yuan Ming Yuan (popularly known as the Summer Palace) about 1.5 million treasures are now scattered through more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese find this deeply disturbing.

It really was ‘Elginism’ in that the troops were commanded by the son of the 7th Earl, he who got Byron originally steamed up and elegiac in verse about the theft of cultural heritage.