Repatriation of Antiquities and Cultural Diplomacy: China and Greece

Repatriation of antiquities is an essential aspect of a coherent museum policy and of course of a greater cultural diplomacy for countries with great historical depth like China and Greece. China and Greece are two ancient nations and modern states that are inheritors of two great civilizations that have formed the building blocks of the civilizations of Asia and Europe respectively. China and Greece face similar challenges concerning protection of their cultural identity and their historic antiquities. The importance of the unification of historic collections, monuments and cultural artifacts, is a top priority for the cultural diplomacy goals of our nations.

The National Museum of China with a permanent collection of 1,050,000 items from all periods of Chinese history ranks among the greatest and most important museums in the world. When I recently visited China, I had the rare opportunity to visit this museum and enjoy its variety of cultural wealth. In Greece, the Acropolis Museum was built to house every artifact found on the Acropolis rock and on the surrounding slopes. It was essentially built to host again the emblematic stolen antiquities: the Parthenon Marbles and the Caryatid (a female statue, part of an architectural complex), now hosted in the British Museum. These two museums rank among the most advanced globally equipped with state-of-the-art technology and facilities for the protection and preservation of exhibits.

There are emblematic antiquities outside our borders that need to be returned to their rightful owners, China and Greece. Especially the British Museum in London holds many Chinese and Greek antiquities and items of great historical and symbolical significance. China has emphatically joined the just demands for the British Museum to return all the improperly acquired art and artifacts currently held in its collection.

23,000 Chinese artifacts are held in the British Museum. Among these one can mention the tri-colored luohan statues, ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, stone Buddhist sutra scrolls of the Wei and Jin dynasties, and other extremely valuable national treasures. The Parthenon Marbles are a collection of Classical Greek marble sculptures that originally formed part of the temple of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens, such as the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. The Marbles were violently detached by the Parthenon and stolen by British Lord Elgin in the early 19th century.

Fig. 1: Gu Kaizhi, Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies (ca. 400–700), British Museum.


Fig. 2: Phidias, Section of a frieze from the Parthenon (ca 447-438 BC), British Museum


Other historical nations too have raised the issue demanding the return of emblematic antiquities still held in the British Museum, such as Egypt. The Rosetta Stone is a stele inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in 196 BC in Memphis during the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian with hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek. The Rosetta Stone was the key for the decipherment of ancient Egyptian scripts. Egypt has repeatedly raised the issue of the repatriation of the Rosetta Stone. Nigeria and Ethiopia too have voiced similar just demands.

In an era of technological breakthroughs, such as advanced digital 3D-printing, foreign museums that hold emblematic Chinese and Greek antiquities and other artifacts can benefit by hosting faithful copies. Additional long-term exhibitions of Chinese and Greek artifacts generously loaned for a period by the museum authorities of China and Greece could enrichen the temporary exhibition items of Western museums. Simply put, there are no more excuses for denying repatriation of stolen antiquities and retribution of historical justice.

On a diplomatic level, China and Greece –along with other nations, such as Italy, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Nigeria- can create a cultural alliance that shall safeguard their rich heritage and restore emblematic ancient works of art to their rightful owners. China and Greece can form a Forum for Repatriation of Stolen Antiquities that shall actively push for the return of antiquities, but most emphatically for those embedded with great symbolic value for modern China and Greece.

The historical past forms a fundamental aspect of our current national identity. China is a nation based on a rich and multifaceted historical identity embracing all historical periods. Greece is the inheritor of ancient Greek culture and has a multiple modern identity. Culture may be international, but is national too. The Chinese civilization has an international dimension that has benefited the peoples of Asia in their own historical development, but it also distinctly a national civilization and a structural component of modern Chinese identity. The Greek civilization has an international dimension as the bedrock of Western culture, but is also distinctly a national civilization of the Greek nation and an integral part of modern Greek identity.

In this sense, repatriation of antiquities to modern state-of-the-art Chinese and Greek museums is a top diplomatic priority that equals to historic justice. The cultural diplomacy of China and Greece can coordinate to advance the just demands of the two nations and safeguard the protection of cultural creation and respect for the rights of peoples across the world.


The author Ioannis E. Kotoulas (Ph.D. in History, Ph.D. in Geopolitics) is Adjunct Lecturer in Geopolitics, University of Athens, Greece, a Guest Scholar of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Tsinghua University.