A magnificent collection showcasing revered sculptures once adorning the illustrious Old Summer Palace

Rooster (replica)
Rabbit (replica)
Pig (replica)
Monkey (replica)
Tiger (replica)
Copper Vase in a Double-gourd with a Bird-and-flower Design in Reserve Panels
Jia Wine Vessel with Taotie Design
Ancient Food and Wine Vessels
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The Grand Gathering of the Century: Zodiac Heads from the Yuanmingyuan is an exhibition at City University of a replica set of the twelve zodiac head sculptures that once resided in the Old Summer Palace, also known as Yuanmingyuan.

The Qing dynasty’s Old Summer Palace playground

The Old Summer Palace in northwest Beijing was first constructed in 1709. In its garden was a wonderful water clock fountain. Mounted on two sides of a triangular basin, twelve bronze-cast sculptures, one each to represent the Chinese zodiac signs of the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig spouted water, in turn, every two hours, with all spraying water in concert at noon.

The water clock fountain was commissioned by the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) during the Qing dynasty. Jesuit priests were responsible for this artistic and engineering masterpiece. Italian Giuseppe Castiglione designed the fountain, and Frenchman Michel Benoit engineered the ingenious mechanical devices controlling the water flow.

Old Summer Palace: Cultural loss in the 2nd Opium War

The emperors enjoyed this masterpiece up until 1860 and the Second Opium War. The conflict arose due to tensions over diplomatic relations and the opium trade. The Qing dynasty, weakened by internal strife and corruption, was ill-prepared to defend against the technologically advanced forces of the British and French. When the invading force found out that their delegates had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed, they ordered the destruction of the Palace. Soldiers systematically looted and destroyed the buildings and art treasures inside.

The sacking of the Old Summer Palace profoundly impacted China and its perception of foreign powers. It not only represented a physical loss of cultural treasures but also was seen as a symbol of the humiliation and subjugation of the Chinese people by foreign forces.

The twelve bronze-cast zodiac heads from the water clock fountain were amongst those taken. Many stolen treasures were quickly auctioned off and dispersed to private collectors and institutions worldwide. Over time, some zodiac heads were rediscovered and repatriated to China. Since then, efforts have been made by the Chinese government and cultural organisations to locate and reclaim the remaining figures. Whenever one of the original heads comes up at auction, the reclamation has become a Chinese nationalist priority.

Rediscovering Lost Zodiac Heads: Auctions and Repatriation

In 2000, through auction houses in Hong Kong, The China Poly Group acquired the head of the Ox for US$ 0.98 million, the Tiger for US$ 1.98 million, and the Monkey for US$ 1.03 million.

Macau gaming magnate Stanley Ho bought the Pig head for US$ 0.77 million and, in 2003, donated it to the Poly Art Museum in Beijing. In 2007, he purchased and then donated the Horse head for US$ 8.9 million.

A scandal ensued in 2009 when the Rat and Rabbit heads were auctioned at a Christie’s sale of the estate of late French Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The Chinese government condemned the sale of looted relics and demanded their return. A Chinese businessman and art dealer, Cai Mingchao, bid almost US$ 40 million for the pair and then announced that he would not pay for them and demanded they be returned to China. He described his sabotage of the auction as a patriotic act. This resolute attitude was echoed at the non-governmental level when China Lost Relics Recovery Fund filed a petition to try to stop the sale, only to be rejected by a Paris tribunal.

Eventually, Francois Pinault, the owner of Christie’s, bought the Rat and Rabbit heads. He returned them to China in 2013, shortly before the auction house was granted permission to operate there.

There is speculation that the dragon head sold at auction in 2019 for US$ 3.4 million. The buyer has yet to be identified.

The Enigmatic Zodiac Heads: Unraveling Mysteries

The elusive Snake, Goat, Rooster, and Dog remain shrouded in mystery, their current whereabouts unknown. The true existence of these heads remains a tantalising enigma waiting to be unravelled. Thus, the appeal of this exhibition lies in the opportunity to marvel, scrutinise, and contemplate the profound significance of the entire assemblage of these twelve bronze heads. It grants one the intimate privilege of beholding not only the discovered heads but also the enigmatic ones that elude the grasp of many.

Text Martin Wray / Photo Cammy Yiu