December 23, 2005

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A Century of French Exploration

Today, on my own blog, I wrote about the misadventures of the French expeditionary force organized to rescue the embattled Legations of Peking during the siege of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. But while the French force mustered to save the Legations left much to be desired, many of the Frenchmen on the spot demonstrated tremendous bravery. One of them was a 22-year old French scholar named Paul Pelliot. Although not trained as a soldier (he was an academic that just unfortunately happened to be in Peking during the Siege), under fire he stormed an emeny position, and also relieved the dietary stress on the defenders by procuring for them fresh fruit.

True reknown came to him though, in his academic and archaelogical discoveries. He discovered a huge number of paintings and scrolls in many places near the Taklamakan Desert, including Dunhuang, which he felt were endangered by the anarchic last days of the Qing Empire and safer in French hands. So he bought them from a monk at the monastery named Abbot Wang.

Both were reviled by the Nationalist and Communist governments for giving away priceless Chinese artifacts. In Dunhuang today, you can still see a mini-museum dedicated to what they called the cultural robbers of men like Paul Pelliot and Sir Aurel Stein.

Which is why I was so surprised to read an article today about a joint Sino-French expedition, almost 100 years after Pelliot first set out for China, that discovered several ancient cities from the Western Han dynasty over 2000 years ago, on the southern fringe of the Taklamakan Desert (which means, he who goes in, will not come out - I can tell you from personal experience the area is so vast and arid that it can be believed at face value). Funny how things change!

Speaking of which, those of you in Hong Kong can enjoy a show entitled "The Silk Road: Treasures from Xinjiang" at the Heritage Museum in Sha Tin.

posted by HK Dave on 12.23.05 at 02:24 PM in the China history, education & culture category.


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