A well-known treasure from Yuanmingyuan, or the Old Summer Palace, finally came home to Beijing 159 years later.
A red bronze horse head statue was donated back by 97-year-old collector and Hong Kong-Macao business magnate Stanley Ho, who handed the statue to the National Cultural Heritage Administration in Beijing on Wednesday.
As a surprise for visitors to the National Museum of China, the statue appeared there on Wednesday afternoon and joined an ongoing exhibit displaying hundreds of priceless cultural relics that have been returned from overseas since 1949. The exhibit will run through Nov 27.
Built in 1707, Yuanmingyuan - the former imperial resort of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) - has often referred to as "the garden of gardens" for its lush landscapes and numerous temples, palaces and pavilions. It covered a 350-hectare area, about five times the size of the Forbidden City.
However, Anglo-French troops rampaged through the compound and set it on fire in 1860. Numerous national treasures, including 12 animal head statues of the Chinese zodiac, were taken away in the mayhem. Yuanmingyuan fell into ruins after the ransacking.
According to Liu Yuzhu, director of the National Cultural Heritage Administration, the newly returned statue will be transferred to Yuanmingyuan.
"The return of the statue marks a broken link of collective historical memory being reconnected," Liu said. "It will also encourage more compatriots' devotion, both at home and abroad, to better preserve the cultural heritage of our country."
The horse head bust appeared in Hong Kong for a Sotheby's auction in 2007, and the administration immediately contacted the auctioneer to register its disagreement at the auction, arguing it was stolen from China, and expressed hope that it would be returned to its motherland "in a suitable way in the future".
To save it from being taken abroad again, Ho negotiated with the seller and spent HK$69.1 million ($8.8 million) to get the statue in September 2007, and publicly exhibited it in Hong Kong and Macao to promote patriotism and consciousness of protecting cultural relics.
"In the past 70 years' effort to reclaim lost Chinese cultural relics from overseas, Hong Kong and Macao compatriots have always contributed," Liu said.
The bust is the seventh of the 12 animal statues from the Yuanmingyuan fountain to be returned to Beijing from overseas. In 2003, Ho also donated a pig head statue back to Yuanmingyuan. The whereabouts of the five remaining bronze zodiac heads remain unknown.
"After the opening of the exhibition, my colleagues and I wrote to Mr. Ho exploring the possibility of letting the horse head travel northward and get united with the other six," Liu recalled. "Ho's family gave warm feedback and decided to permanently donate it back to the country for free."
"It's our family's gift for the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China and 20th anniversary of Macao's return to the motherland, and best wishes for our country's prosperity," Pansy Ho, Stanley Ho's daughter, said at a ceremony for the return of the statue.