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June 10, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright June 10, 2008 Daniel A. Bell. Used by permission.


I am a big fan of Jonathan Spence’s works. His books bring to life some of the great and not-so-famous characters in Chinese history and they read like novels. When I was told that he had delivered a lecture on “Confucian Ways” for the BBC, I was very curious, and clicked on the link with great anticipation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to download the programme here in Beijing, but I did print out the transcript. That’s what I’ve just read.

The lecture was delivered at the British library, and the host Sue Lawley opens by noting that the library houses the oldest book in the world, printed in 868 AD in China. Professor Spence adds that he is pleased to start his lecture “in the British library with its immense holdings of Asian books and manuscripts.” How did the British library secure those books, I wonder? Surely the weren’t willingly handed over to British imperial forces. I live right next to the Yuanmingyuan here in Northwest Beijing, the Old Summer Palace that was burnt down in 1860 by rampaging British and French forces. The ruins are visited by Chinese tourists, who view them as a symbol of China’s “century of humilitiation” at the hands of foreign powers. Perhaps the books were taken from the Yuanmingyuan? Or maybe the Chinese handed them over in exchange for the opium that they were forced to buy from British merchants?

I somehow thought that such questions might be answered by one of the Western world’s most eminent historians of China. Why else bring up the fact that so many of China’s treasures are held in Britain? Seems to be rubbing salt in the wound. Imagine if, two centuries from now, China manages to buy (or steal) British national treasures, and then brags about it when a Chinese professor of British history gives a talk on John Locke at the national library in Beijing. How would the British feel?