Topic: The return of Chinese cultural treasures taken from the first Opium War to the end of the Japanese invasion (1840-1945)

Presenter: Sarah Zhong - PhD Candidate, TC Beirne School of Law

This research focuses on the return of Chines cultural objects taken out of the county from the First Opium War to the end of Japanese Invasion (1840-1945). Following the decay of the Qing government and the defeat in the First Opium War, China was forced to open its borders and dragged into a series of wars against Western powers and Japan. During this period, described as one hundred years' humiliation, a large number of cultural objects were taken out of the county both during times of war and peace. The Chinese government continues to seek the returns of this heritage in accordance with international conventions and Chinese law. 

This research considers the historical background to the loss of this heritage and divides the removals into two categories, firstly, removals by states during armed conflicts, and secondly, removals by individuals. Regarding the question whether the removals were illegal or not, this research evaluates both international law and Chinese law respectively. Conclusion can be made that not all the removals occurred from 1840 to 1945 were legal, since Hague Convention 1907 explicitly prohibited pillage and Chinese law claimed its ownership over its cultural property. 

This research will discuss whether international human rights law can be applied as a solution to recover all Chinese cultural objects, after Turkey petitioned the European Court of Human Rights for the return of sculptures from the mausoleum of Halicarnassus which is currently held by the British Museum. This thesis will also study the subsequent attempts at recovering Nazi-looted art treasures during WWII, and apply the successful experience to the Japanese removals of Chinese cultural objects during WWII. Additionally, this research will argue that cultural objects should be returned to their original places from a non-legal perspective, premised on the understanding that while cultural treasure from each country should be accessible to all humankind, it should first satisfy the needs of their original states. 

All welcome, please register by emailing Beth Williams.

Contact: Beth Williams, ph: (334) 69350, email:

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