Shine on you crazy diamond

Have you been to the British Museum? One of the best museums in the world, largely because it contains the loot of empire, stuff the Brits brought back from all over the place, mostly from the days when archeology was more like looting. They have the Elgin Marbles which have been the source of a good deal of controversy, with the Greeks wanting it back and the Brits not wanting to return it.

One of the jewels of the BM collection is the Diamond Sutra from Dunhuang, the world’s first printed book.

Diamond Sutra

Although it was “acquired” by Aurel Stein under conditions that would not pass muster today, as far as I know the Chinese have not asked for it back. This is a bit surprising to me. Part of it is that the whole reclaiming antiquities thing seems to be less common in East Asia then in the West. I think it also has to do with where things fit into the popular mind. Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back because they are masterworks of Greek art and they are Greeks. China has requested some stuff from An-yang back, but they have not, as yet, been interested in this. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before Chinese nationalists start demanding back the treasures of Chinese culture all over the world. I suspect that even then the Diamond Sutra would not be as big a deal for China since being Buddhist it may fit less well into modern Chinese conceptions of the treasures of Chinese culture than it does for westerners. It’s one of those things which seems, to me anyway, to loom larger in the foreign concept of China than the Chinese one.

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