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 Consequently, the relics, at the time belonging to the private collection of Yves Saint Laurent, were withdrawn from the auction, making this episode a significant moment for the debate on Chinese nationalism, repatriation of looted artifacts and the concept of cultural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).


Concerning the Chinese context, a particularly useful contribution comes from Ho (2017), who provides an account of revolution exhibitions in the Maoist era. She discusses how material culture can become a tool for political legitimization, and portrays curated exhibits aimed at promoting Maoist values of class struggle. In these exhibitions, cultural and revolutionary relics were collected, and provided material evidence used to impart ideological lessons and stimulate collective consciousness (Ho, 2017: 144). In the policies of 1990s China, we find a similar approach, in that material culture once again served political legitimization and created access to the past. Scholars point out how, in the wake of the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Chinese government embarked on a massive patriotic education campaign to strengthen political power and create a rhetoric where love for the Party equals love for the nation (Zheng, 2007; Callahan, 2010). To do so, the elites restored the so-called Century of National Humiliation narrative as their guiding principle, a time of national suffering caused by repeated military defeats of the Chinese at the hand of Western powers and Japan.


The patriotic education campaign was from the very beginning tied to material culture. Wang (2008:794) recounts how Chinese people today are living in a forest of monuments, as with the campaign over 100 historical sites, museums, and public sculptures were chosen to reinforce collective memory and ensure the national humiliation narrative succeeded. Among them, are the ruins of the Yuanmingyuan. Material culture takes on a particular meaning in the rhetoric of national humiliation, as it serves to balance an anxiety of forgetting (Cohen, 2003) which could lead to another demise of China. Historical memory can therefore be exploited to reinforce a specific narrative, and the construction of physical sites for remembrance is instrumental in shaping collective memory for those who did not witness the humiliation. National humiliation was respectively experienced, remembered and then manipulated (Cohen, 2003:171).


It is in light of this narrative that we should interpret the outrage following the 2009 Paris auction and how the heads were framed at the time, notably as objects that have become symbolic of a specific narrative on China’s past, and as objects that can signify a regained superiority over the historical aggressor.


The Haiyantang Fountain Heads

The Yuanmingyuan was first built in 1709 under emperor Kangxi, and later received structural alterations with his successors Yongzheng and Qianlong. Under the reign of the latter, a section was constructed with European style buildings, and among them was the Haiyantang palace. In front of it, a water-clock fountain, enclosed by twelve anthropomorphic stone statues with bronze-cast Chinese zodiac heads. There are five distinct meanings I see embodied in the original Yuanmingyuan set.


First of all, the heads can be interpreted as a symbol of the Qing imperial power (1). Although today they are sometimes regarded as a simple decorative element with no artistic value, the context of their display suggests they could signify political strength. During the reign of Qianlong, the Haiyantang was among the palaces where the emperor displayed artifacts collected from the West. The mansion was the embodiment of the Chinese gaze on western curiosities, a “glorified display cabinet for western trinkets” (Fotopoulos, 2015: 610). The fountain, on the other hand, was the synthesis of Qing’s command of Western knowledge (Musillo, 2012: 159), and thus a sign of supremacy of Chinese culture. The heads were characterized by a hybrid style that combined a traditional Chinese motif (the zodiac) and a European design. This brings us to their second meaning. The fountain was designed by the Milanese Giuseppe Castiglione and engineered by the French Michel Benoit, making this project another element in the visual encounter between the Chinese empire and European Jesuits started during the Ming dynasty (Musillo, 2012). For this reason, I believe one of the primary meanings embedded in the zodiac heads is that of intercultural exchange (2). Interestingly, one of the main arguments of those questioning the heads as part of China’s cultural heritage, is precisely their mixed nature. Nevertheless, the fact that the heads were designed by a foreigner does not make them less “Chinese”. The relationship between Jesuits and the Qing court was not unilateral. Jesuits like Castiglione had to undergo radical transformations and adapt to Chinese customs. Therefore, when they contributed with their knowledge to the artistic production of the time they were, in turn, influenced by the Chinese context (Musillo, 2012).


When in 1860 the sack of the Yuanmingyuan occurred, the heads assumed a whole new meaning; they became looted artifacts and thus belonged to the realm of displaced objects (3). Law (2014) highlights that the close connection between group identity and objects from the past can generate a “pain of displacement”, which in the case of the heads became the premise for the nationalist narrative to unfold. As to who exactly stole the heads, reports on the Yuanmingyuan looting provide information on how Europeans behaved (Hevia, 1999), but accounts of Chinese looters are also present, even if less documented (Thomas, 2012: 510), making this another useful point for the nationalist narrative to exploit.


The next significant moment in the history of the heads can be observed when they re-emerged in the market in the 1980s. Hence, the fourth role of the heads I identify is that of commodities (4). The heads of the monkey, boar, ox, horse and tiger were auctioned in New York (1987), London (1989) and Hong Kong (2000). As commodities, objects from China displayed in Europe were often used for the wrong function: incense holders turned into lamps, tripods used as vases (Thomas, 2012:510). In the same way, the heads were sold severed from their stone body, expropriated of their original fountain faucet function. The commodification of the heads also allowed the nationalist narrative to show its first signs. Although their sale did not attract as much protest as in 2009, the Chinese government still attempted to repatriate them through official and unofficial means (Fotopoulos, 2015: 604). Some heads, for example, were purchased by the Poly Group, a private corporation affiliated with the PLA.


Finally, we return to the most popular framing of the heads as an emblem of nationalism (5). As I already mentioned, the heads came to bear this meaning in light of the significance the Yuanmingyuan has for the National Humiliation narrative. According to Fotopoulos (2015: 620), the heads were singled out among the loot because they were easily related to the already established Yuanmingyuan Ruins Park. In their unquestionable materiality, the heads are the tangible proof of the past sufferings of China. Therefore, after the consolidation of the discourse on national heritage in China throughout the 20th century (Lai, 2016: 62) the retrieval of such objects became of paramount importance for government institutions. The dislocated heritage had been located, and had to return to its rightful owner.


In conclusion, the heads assumed different meanings throughout the centuries and were eventually exploited for the nationalist discourse. Some researchers believe they are part of China’s national heritage because of their historical significance (Levitz, 2009), while others argue that they are just the result of state manipulation (Kraus, 2004; Thomas, 2012; Fotopoulous, 2015). Despite their ambiguous artistic value, the heads are undoubtedly relevant for the debates they disclosed, having offered a unique perspective to inquire on Chinese nationalism, cultural heritage, but also shedding light on the Jesuit-Qing exchange and the role of the zodiac for Chinese culture.


Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads

The link between Circle of Animals and the Yuanmingyuan set of heads has led many to interpret Ai’s piece as a critique on the nationalist exploitation of the heads. The commentary on Circle of Animals has for the most part supported this interpretation, while it overlooked other layers it might include. The installation was conceived in two versions: Bronze and Gold. The first is composed of oversized heads mounted on tall columns and was displayed as outdoor public art. The second is a smaller set of the twelve heads, polished in a golden coat and placed on short engraved bases which playfully recalls water; another sign of the original inspiration to the Haiyantang fountain.


Fotopoulos (2015: 606) describes Ai Weiwei’s set as “two sets of counterfeit Zodiac mounted on spikes” and sides with those who consider the installation as a political statement. Although the word counterfeit in China does not necessarily have a negative connotation and the concept of authorship and copy are distinct from those of Europe (Merewether, 2011), I do not think this is the most suitable way to describe the piece. One of Ai Weiwei’s trademarks which derives from his familiarity with the ready-made, is the exploration of the relation between object and copy, a conversation with the idea of the original that also wants to disengage from it, destroy it, reinterpret it (ibid: 88). Circle of Animals: Bronze immediately differs from the Haiyantang heads in the gargantuan nature of the animals. The artist decided to maintain the cast technique, but magnified the heads in size and placed them above eye level. With regard to Gold, the alteration is visible in the supports of the heads, each different from one another, the result of pure creation and not reproduction. Consequently, I believe that Ai’s installation can be considered as much a copy, as an original. If it is true that the project was influenced by the Yuanmingyuan heads, we also know that only seven of the original artifacts are available for Ai Weiwei to reproduce. The heads of the dragon, snake, goat, rooster, and dog are purely the artist’s reimagining of the zodiac and thus cannot count as “counterfeit” or “copies”.


On the “meaning” of the piece, I believe considering it a political critique is not a sufficient interpretation. Indeed, typical of Ai Weiwei’s art is the commentary on society and on the history of his homeland, but I would argue that given the highly transformed nature of the heads in Circle of Animals there could be other narratives at play here. For instance, the location of the installation could have an ambivalent reading. It could either be seen as a contribution to the discourse on dislocated heritage, which places the heads into “Western territory” and reminds the Chinese public of the humiliation, or it could be instead a mockery attitude of the artist who doesn’t consider the heads as part of the Chinese cultural heritage and therefore places them as far away from the “motherland” as possible (both physically and culturally, if we consider the US as the present antipode of the Chinese government). Another interpretation I personally consider feasible is that this strategic placement could refer to one other meaning of the zodiac heads, i.e. their intercultural exchange value. In the same way the heads had come to symbolise the encounter between European artists and the Qing court in the 1700s, placing Circle of Animals in London, and New York could be viewed as another exchange between a symbol of Chinese culture such as the zodiac, within a new place for it to be understood, learnt, exchanged. On a different note, Ai Weiwei seems to accept the commodification of the heads items by reproducing them in two sets and by later selling them (Los Angeles Times, 2015). This is clearly in contrast with the measures taken by the CCP to repatriate the original heads, which officially declared outrageous the sale of national heritage.


Finally, a significant feature of Circle of Animals is the decision to make it a work of public art, free of charge. This leads me to assume that one of the meanings of Ai’s piece is to bring the imagery of the zodiac back to the popular level, back to its cultural exchange significance. I believe the installation could be seen as a way for Ai Weiwei to relate to his own identity, and to communicate that to a foreign public. Although the artist admittedly did criticise the framing of the heads by the Chinese government (Ai, 2011: 56), he also stated that the reason the zodiac imagery appealed to him was because it was something anyone could easily relate to. This includes those who do not have access to the background of the original set of heads and the controversial discourses around them. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads can therefore be explained on many different levels, and one of them is to bring the imagery of the Chinese Zodiac back to its original, less politicised meaning.


In conclusion, while undoubtedly the political critique remains in Circle of Animals, we should not overlook the importance this piece has in the re-appropriation of the people over art. By playing with the concept of the original, Ai Weiwei’s piece not only questions China’s past but confirms the Chinese zodiac as an element of his identity and presents his project as the graceful conclusion to a cycle of interpretation of the zodiac heads which returns to the significance of an artistic collaboration between China and the West.



Lucrezia Goldin is a China enthusiast academically, an indomitable nerd and a cat lover in private. She holds a Master of Arts in Chinese Studies from Leiden University and a Bachelor degree in Linguistic and Cultural Mediation from Insubria University. She was also a language student at Shandong University, Jinan, China, where she has lived for a total of two years. Passionate about topics of national identity and historical memory, she focused mostly on Chinese digital politics and nationalist narratives as well cinema and modern art. She is currently also a member of the European Guanxi Editorial Team. You can find her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram.



The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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