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Framing Artistic Heritage: The Yuanmingyuan Fountain Heads

Narratives and Interpretations Surrounding the Yuanmingyuan Fountain Heads and Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

Bronze figure heads from the Haiyantang fountain exhibiton on the Yuanmingyuan grounds © Vmenkov / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In the history of artifacts renowned more for the controversies surrounding them than for their artistic value, the two bronze-cast heads of a rat and a rabbit put up for auction on February 2009 are certainly amongst the most memorable. The auction, held by Christie’s in Paris, was met with profound criticism by Chinese authorities who claimed the heads belonged to China’s cultural heritage and provoked a wave of nationalist antiforeign outrage on Chinese social media (Mason and Yang, 2011). The two incriminated heads were part of a set of twelve in a fountain complex situated in the northeast corner of the Yuanmingyuan, one of Beijing’s old imperial palaces. In 1860, during the second Opium War, French and British troops systematically plundered the palaces of the Yuanmingyuan, allotted the loot on the spot according to Prize Law (Hevia, 1999), and later set fire to the grounds. The heads were allegedly stolen on this occasion. Today, only seven are accounted for and the effort on the part of Chinese authorities to repatriate them has contributed to portray them as an essential part of China’s cultural heritage (Demattè, 2011). Further aggravating the already tense situation, Chinese antiquities collector Cai Mingchao placed the winning bid during the 2009 auction, but later announced he would not pay for the heads in protest of their sale. Consequently, the relics, at the time belonging to the private collection of Yves Saint Laurent, were withdrawn from the auction, making this episode a significant moment for the debate on Chinese nationalism, repatriation of looted artifacts and the concept of cultural heritage.

A year after the incident, Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei, created an installation called Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, inspired by the Yuanmingyuan fountain heads. To further corroborate this connection, the art project was displayed at two pre-existing fountains sites: the Pulitzer fountain in New York first and the fountain of the Somerset House in London later. Many critics interpreted Ai’s exhibit as a political statement and a critique to the CCP’s nationalist discourse around the heads (The New York Times, 2016), claiming it was the artist’s way of rising up to the challenge sparked with nationalist outrage over the sale of the heads (Smith, 2011: 68). However, while the choice of the zodiac heads imagery was certainly not a coincidence, to consider Ai’s piece merely as a political manifesto would be incorrect. As a matter of fact, the exhibition could be seen as a multi-layered endeavour that also, but not exclusively, relates to the discourse on the heads. To interpret Circle of Animals solely as a critique on nationalism is to consider only one of the many different meanings the Yuanmingyuan zodiac heads encompassed through the centuries.

For this reason, in this study I aim to retrace the different stages of interpretation of the Yuanmingyuan heads. Then, I relate their different meanings to Ai Weiwei’s exhibition propose his piece as the continuation on the imagery of the zodiac heads, whilst discussing matters of original and copy of the same motif, of art as access to the past, and of course, of the manipulation of material culture for ideological narratives.

Theoretical Background: Nationalism and Material Culture

The importance of material culture for the creation of shared communities is a topic that has been theorised extensively. Experts on the birth of nation-states and nationalism have demonstrated that emphasis on historical continuity can be an element for the legitimization of political institutions (Anderson, 1991; Callahan, 2010) and some scholars suggest that objects and relics not only are crucial for the definition of self (Woodward, 2007), but can also be influential in creating shared narratives on a nation’s past, thus helping to shape collective identity (Thomas, 2012).