As two pieces of looted Chinese relics were on the stage for auction in the Grand Palace of Paris on Wednesday, a group of Chinese students gathered in front of the palace and handed out leaflets about the history of Yuanmingyuan (Old Summer Palace) and the Second Opium War.
The two bronzes are something new to the French, but history to the Chinese, Li Huan, a Chinese student studying in France told Xinhua.
Amid strong protest of the Chinese government and people, French auction house Christie's sold the Chinese relics out for 14million euros (17.92 million U.S. dollars) each to anonymous telephone bidders.
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) relics, bronze heads of a rabbit and a rat are among an original set of 12 sculptures that once adorned the imperial summer resort Yuanmingyuan. They were looted when the palace was burnt down by Anglo-French allied forces during the Second Opium War in 1860.
The Chinese authorities have strongly protested the auction of the relics. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the auction broke international conventions and seriously hurt the cultural rights and interests and the national sentiment of the Chinese people.
Giving out pamphlets about the looting of Yuangmingyuan by Western powers, Li Huan said that French people should learn more about that part of history. He noted that many French readily accepted the pamphlets. One of them said "I appreciate what you are doing, and I think all the looted relics, including these two, should be returned to China."
A group of Chinese lawyers filed a lawsuit earlier this month with the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris, asking for an injunction. However, the court ruled against their demand and ordered compensation to the defendant.
"Although we failed in the lawsuit, justice will not fail," Li said.
Li and two dozens Chinese students printed 5,000 pamphlets and started to distribute over the weekend to every participant at the auction.
"We want French people to understand that we are rational and our requests are legitimate," said Zhou Chao, another Chinese student at a French polytechnic institute.
Yang Yongju, president of the European Times, the flagship Chinese-language newspaper in France said it is "unacceptable to put stolen works for auction."
"These relics bear China's cultural sovereignty and its national sentiment. What at issue is not their prices. It is totally unacceptable to loot them and then put them up for auction," she said.
The views of the Chinese people were shared by many of their foreign friends.
"My heart sank when the court refused our appeal," said Bernard Gomez, president of the Association for the Protection of Chinese Art in Europe (APACE), the organization that serves as plaintiff in the lawsuit. "I hope the two relics could go home eventually," Gomez added.
The controversial auction of the two bronze heads at Christie's raised the Chinese people's concerns for the fate of their overseas cultural heritage and brought world's attention to the shameful trading of the looted relics.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has reiterated that China has undoubted ownership to its national treasures and that the relics should be returned to China for free.
The retrieve of lost relics is one of the world's most thorny issues, which involves political, economic, cultural and international relations factors and usually takes years of strenuous and extensive efforts.
It is estimated that a total of 1.67 million pieces of Chinese relics, mostly robbed in wars, are in possession of more than 2,000 museums in 47 countries. China's State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH) said China will try to take back all Chinese relics stolen in wars or exported illegally in accordance with related international conventions and by all necessary means.
The Chinese government said the return of looted relics should be unconditional. However, Pierre Berge, owner of the bronzes, offered to swap the two sculptures for the application of "human rights in China and the freedom of Tibet."
"Using the pretext of human rights to infringe on Chinese people's fundamental cultural rights is just ridiculous," said Ma Chaoxu, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman at a press conference.
Bernard Brizay, a French historian and journalist, said "combining the two relics with human rights and Tibet issues has no difference with blackmailing for ransom."
The Anglo-French allied forces' plunder was a crime against China as well as the world, said Brizay, author of "1860: the Looting of the Old Summer Palace."
The Chinese people's feelings are understandable, he told Xinhua, "the two bronzes should be returned to China, no matter who got the bids," he said.