Chinese regret losing relics bought by Canadian cleric

KAIFENG, China – The name of Canada’s Bishop William White leaves a sour taste in the mouths of some people who know of him here.

The late Bishop White was an Anglican missionary who spent years assembling the famous Chinese collection at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “Thanks to White,” writes former Globe and Mail correspondent Charles Taylor in his book Six Canadians: A Canadian Pattern, “Toronto has one of the world’s foremost collections of early Chinese bronzes, and a trove of tomb figures which give an extremely detailed picture of Chinese life over thousands of years.” Bishop White amassed most of his collection in this region of Henan Province, a vast dusty area south of the Yellow River. With a recorded history of nearly 3,000 years, Kaifeng is one of China’s six great imperial capital cities. It now is a market and commercial centre of about 500,000.

As Mr. Taylor tells it, Bishop White came to Kaifeng – for the first time in 1910 – as a zealous missionary. He left a passionate collector, and later become the curator of the ROM’s Far Eastern collection. Before he died in 1960, Bishop White was also director of the University of Toronto’s School of Chinese Studies.

Today, few remember Bishop White’s relief and social work in Henan, which was ravaged alternately by floods and famine. It is for what he did with China’s antiquities that his name is recalled, and then in tones of derision. At the Kaifeng municipal museum Deputy Curator Xu Baiyong repeats the accusation that Bishop White stole the treasures, and grew rich in the process.

It is not a new charge. Thirty years ago Francis Tseng, who had studied under Bishop White in Toronto and who was later consecrated Bishop of Henan, made a similar attack after visiting the ROM. (Bishop Tseng, now in his seventies, lives in Kaifeng but is said by Mr. Xu to be too frail to receive visitors.) Mr. Xu discounts suggestions that Bishop White had not profited personally and that if he had not acquired the treasures – most at prevailing prices, Mr. Taylor says – they might have been destroyed during China’s long civil war or, later, during the Cultural Revolution.

Neither does he have much time for the argument that the artifacts are being well cared for in Toronto and have opened China’s national heritage to Canadians as well as other foreigners. “You cannot say that just because they’re being well displayed and in good condition, they wouldn’t be well cared for here . . . . We are not so happy about this.”Asked whether China would demand their return, Mr. Xu replied: “We cannot think about that because it sounds impossible. They would never be returned to China.” Mr. Xu has other complaints about Bishop White. He claimed that the missionary was once entrusted with the relics of a certain warlord named General Zhao. One day when the warlord came to retrieve them, they were missing. “Because of these treasures,” Mr. Xu said, without identifying them, “Bishop White became very wealthy.” He also claims that Bishop White, an authority on Chinese Judaica (he wrote a book called Chinese Jews), pilfered some ancient sheepskin Torah scrolls. Kaifeng was once home to a small but thriving community of Jews who had found their way there nearly 1,000 years ago.

One of the remnants of the Chinese Jewish legacy are three crumbling steles, two of which have been bonded into one. They sit deteriorating in a dusty shed of the local museum. Mr. Xu says Bishop White wanted to take them out of China and had even cut away the backs of two of the stone tablets and joined them in order to save on the cost of shipping – “but the local people wouldn’t let him.”? In recent years China has moved to ensure wider control over archeological digs and the export of cultural relics. Customs rules have been tightened and anti-smuggling drives increased.

All excavations must be approved by the state and foreigners without specific permission are barred from digs. Privately owned antiques can be sold only to the Cultural Relics Administration.

No antique, whether pottery, embroidery, calligraphy or furniture, will be released by customs authorities unless it carries a red seal indicating the item is not needed by Chinese museums.

Ren Jiyu, director of the Institute of World Religions of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has proposed that fewer exhibitions of China’s antiquities be sent abroad. “If by any chance these priceless objects are damaged,” he reasoned, “the loss can never be regained and no amount of money would be sufficient.”

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