Seizing Civilization: Antiquities in Shanghai's Custody, 1949 – 1996

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Seizing Civilization: Antiquities in Shanghai's Custody, 1949 – 1996

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Title: Seizing Civilization: Antiquities in Shanghai's Custody, 1949 – 1996
Author: Lu, Di Yin
Citation: Lu, Di Yin. 2012. Seizing Civilization: Antiquities in Shanghai's Custody, 1949 – 1996. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: Seizing Civilization uses the Shanghai Museum as a case study to examine an extraordinary process of art appropriation that persisted from 1949 to 1996 in the People's Republic of China (PRC). At the heart of this story is the museum's destruction of the preexisting art market, its wholesale seizure of privately-owned antiquities, and its sale of these objects on the international market. My findings show that museum employees used these events to create public art collections in the PRC. The Shanghai Museum pioneered the techniques that Chinese museums use to transform craft objects, as well as select ancient paintings, ceramics, and bronzes, into canonized cultural relics. I argue that the application of these techniques explains the erasure of provenance at Chinese Museums, and demonstrate how state cultural institutions render acquisition ledgers, private collecting records, and connoisseurship disputes invisible. I examine cultural relics' transformation into Chinese cultural heritage in five chapters. I first demonstrate how museum employees appropriated private collections during nation-building campaigns such as the nationalization of industries (1956). Second, I investigate changes to the Chinese art historical canon, placing them in the context of art market takeovers, the wholesale acquisition of ethnic minority artifacts, as well as municipal programs in salvage archaeology. Then, in two chapters, I reveal the Shanghai Museum's active participation in antiquities confiscation and divestment during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), which enriched public art collections on a previously unprecedented scale. I conclude with an examination of the mass restitution of expropriated property in the 1980s and 90s, which underpinned the museum’s dual function as both a preservationist institution, as well as a political and commercial enterprise. The antiquities and events I analyze not only explain the ascendency of a dominant narrative about Chinese civilization, but also reveal the limits, contradictions, and challenges of PRC national patrimony.
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