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Plundering the Three Gorges May 14, 1998
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

An unprecedented rash of looting is following in the wake of construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the middle reaches of China's Yangtze River. The dam is the largest hydroelectric project ever undertaken; 13 cities, 140 towns, more than 1,600 villages, and 300 factories will be submerged, and nearly 1.5 million people relocated (see "Race Against Time," November/December 1996). Salvage archaeology in the region has been impoverished; the initial budget of nearly two billion yuan ($250 million) for excavation and preservation was reduced to 300 million ($37.5 million), and only a small amount of that sum has been distributed to local authorities because government officials have been unable to decide which agency should administer the funds. Full articles documenting the Yangtze looting crisis are located on the International Rivers Network website. Capsule summaries follow.

  A four-foot bronze candelabrum dating to the Han Dynasty (first-third century A.D.) that sold for $2.5 million at the International Asian Art Fair in New York in late March may have been illegally excavated and smuggled from the city of Baidicheng in Fengjie county, according to Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an art historian affiliated with New York University. The sum paid to Brussels dealer Gisèle Croës was the highest ever paid for a Chinese antiquity. The candelabrum is called both a yaoqian shu, "money tree," and a shen shu, "spirit tree," and only two other intact examples are known to exist in China. Childs-Johnson calls the money-tree an "exceptional work of art" and says it is of national importance. If looted and smuggled, she says "China's loss of this piece is a travesty." Alerted of the sale last week, Yu Weichao, Director of Conservation of Cultural Relics in the Three Gorges area, is investigating the source of the candelabrum.

One of China's premier Buddhist cave sites, Dazu has repeatedly been the target of thieves. (New China Pictures/Eastfoto) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

  A Chongqing court sentenced seven people to one to 15 years in jail for ransacking the Buddhist Cave Temple site of Dazu in Sichuan Province. Dazu encompasses 44 grottoes carved with Buddha images between the ninth and fourteenth centuries A.D. and is among the greatest of China's cave sculpture sites. Five times the thieves targeted one of the caves, Baoding, making away with a clay statue of a seated Guanyin (goddess of compassion) dating to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They also sawed off two heads of luohan, a Buddhist saint, and those of two attendants.

  Looting is epidemic in Wushan and Fengjie counties, Sichuan, where scientific excavations in advance of the dam project have been thwarted by a lack of funds. Flush with money from sales of pillaged artifacts, looters are reported to carry high-frequency radios, cellular phones, and prospecting equipment. Burial grounds in both counties are known to have been dynamited to make way for construction projects. One thousand tombs dating between the Han and Ming periods (206 B.C. to A.D. 1644) were blasted away to make way for a new country seat in Baotaping, Fengjie. Peasants scavaging for artifacts exposed by the dynamiting and bulldozers assaulted Fengjie cultural relics officials who attempted to stop them. Another thousand tombs are estimated to have been destroyed at another construction site in Ziyangcheng, Fengjie.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America