Sunday, August 7, 2011

Forbidden City Cover-Up: The Significance of "Broken Porcelain Gate"

This mallow looks much better than the bowl
The Wenzhou rail crash of July 23 has laid bare the deficit of trust that exists between Chinese people and authority figures within the country. Media attention to that accident has been intense – so intense, in fact, that other significant news items have been given less attention than they should have received. The case of “Broken Porcelain Gate” (think Watergate) is one of those stories.

Unless you are an antiquities enthusiast (and slightly insensitive towards human life), Broken Porcelain Gate is not as tragic as the crash near Wenzhou. Nobody died, and, instead of broken bodies, the main victim was a priceless Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) celadon dish from the famous Ge Kilns in Zhejiang. Perhaps because the destruction of a relatively unknown (from the perspective of Western audiences) cultural relic does not resonate as much as a large scale loss of life does, discussion of this issue outside of China has been slight. The most extensive English-language coverage has actually appeared in English editions of Chinese media sites, such as this one. Chinese-language news sites and blogs have been far more adventurous with their coverage.

It seems that, on July 4, a worker at Beijing’s Forbidden City museum was using a piece of equipment to examine the first-class historical relic, formally known as a “Ge Kiln Celadon Plate with Mouth in the Shape of a Mallow Petal” (哥窯青釉葵瓣口盤). The machine had a platform on which the dish could be set. With the platform adjusted to the proper height, the dish could be safely examined by the machine. Unfortunately, the museum employee misjudged the platform measurements, and the dish rose too far, thereby smashing the plate into six pieces. The Forbidden City kept the matter quiet until 26 days after the incident, when a blogger named Longcan blew the whistle.

The revelation that the museum kept the damage a secret for almost a month was bad enough. The museum appeared to care more about covering its tracks than about facilitating an open investigation. Yet Broken Porcelain Gate was about to get a whole lot worse.

On August 1, the Deputy Museum Curator Chen Lihua gave a television interview in which photos of the broken plate were revealed to the public for the first time. Following the interview, Chen’s story immediately came under attack due to the apparent discrepancy in appearance between the artifact in the released images and that in a set of images purporting to show a mallow petal mouth plate released previously by the Forbidden City. The two sets of images showed plates that differed in color and in pattern. Bloggers feared that the smashed plate had actually been a fake, thereby implicating the museum in both a failure to be transparent and in counterfeiting.

The museum’s response to the latter claim was actually quite logical:

對此,記者了解到,此前媒體所展示的葵瓣口盤實乃故宮另一件哥窯瓷盤,名稱與實際損毀的文物相同,但屬於兩個編號。受損瓷盤編號屬於新字號項下,乃 1949年以后收錄的文物,從南京出土。最初圖片所示瓷盤編號屬於故字號項下,乃1949年前就有的故宮舊藏,目前陳列在故宮珍寶館。

Regarding this, the journalist understood that the Plate with Mouth in the Shape of a Mallow Petal that the media had previously displayed was another Ge Kiln porcelain plate with the same name as the plate that was really broken. However, the two plates had different registration numbers. The plate that was damaged was listed under the new lettering. It was recorded after 1949 and was excavated in Nanjing. The porcelain plate in the earlier photo was of the old lettering. It was part of the museum collection before 1949. It is now displayed in the Forbidden City treasure room.
In fact, it seems that many Ge Kiln plates bear the name of Plate with Mouth in the Shape of a Mallow Petal. Since the plates were not machine made, no two plates are alike. Therefore, it makes sense that the plate photos would differ.

This does not absolve the Forbidden City from blame in the incident, for reasons aptly described by antiquities expert and Guanfu Museum Curator Ma Weidu. Ma notes that, according to national regulations, the Forbidden City had a responsibility to promptly inform their supervisory bureau of the mishap. Moreover, he says that any desire for self-protection on the part of the museum is unjustified since the damaging of first-grade antiquities requires an investigation of the incidents under the Antiquities Protection Law. The museum seems to have been in defiance of this law, even if no counterfeiting was committed.

Yet we should not be so quick to set the fakery accusations aside for one key reason – the rapidity with which the words of the museum’s spokespeople have been questioned. For, like the Wenzhou rail tragedy, Broken Porcelain Gate offers us a glimpse of the depths to which the credibility of authority figures in modern China has sunk. Because the masses expect dishonesty in public statements, public statements are often assumed to be dishonest, or at least only partially honest.

Of course, the Forbidden City didn’t have the highest of credibility to begin with thanks to a recent string of negative news stories. In May, an amateur thief made off with some Western-style jewel-encrusted make-up cases from a temporary exhibit. The same month, the museum presented a banner to local police that contained an embarrassing typo: a slogan that should have read “Safeguard the Motherland” in Chinese was printed as “Undermine the Motherland”. And in that very same May, the media presented evidence that the Forbidden City's recently restored Jianfu Hall had been transformed into a private club. The museum had published a denial just two days prior.

As Lu Lixin, Deputy Secretary-General of the Artwork Evaluation Commission of the Ministry of Culture said at the time, this news couldn’t help but draw public attention since the Forbidden City is a Chinese icon. Therefore, Broken Porcelain Gate was the last thing the museum needed right now since it reinforced negative public perceptions. Unfortunately for the museum staff, other embarrassing revelations may follow. In the atmosphere of heightened scrutiny, new allegations have come to light that four other artifacts may have been damaged recently. It seems that not all is well in the management of one of China’s most famous cultural sites.

Herein lies the real significance of Broken Porcelain Gate. Within the space of two weeks, accidents have affected two Chinese symbols – the high-speed rail representing China’s glorious future and the Forbidden City representing China’s glorious past. Since both mishaps have involved icons, media coverage has been intense. Moreover, since both icons are national in scope, both events inspire observers to look toward the nation's center rather than focus on its periphery. Therefore both should inspire introspection on a national level. Hopefully, that introspection will produce results that will influence China's development for the better.

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