12 Heads from the Garden of Perfect Brightness

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
February 23rd, 2009. Christie’s International in Paris held a much anticipated three-day auction from the private art collection of the late fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent.

Vivian Le:
The auction took place at the historic Grand Palais. And the items up for sale were 733 pieces that Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, had amassed over five decades. The French press dubbed this the “sale of the century.”

Roman Mars:
Producer, Vivian Le.

Vivian Le:
There was a piece by Marcel Duchamp, a painting from Picasso’s Cubist period, even a landscape by Edward Degas that had once hung at Pierre Berge’s bedside. Interested buyers from all over the world flocked to the Champs-Elysees for a piece of the action.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[IT WILL BE A GREAT, GREAT EVENT. AN EVENT, THE LIKE OF WHICH WE’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE, BOTH IN TERMS OF PEOPLE CONGREGATING TO SEE SAINT LAURENT’S COLLECTION, BUT ALSO IN TERMS OF THE PRICES THAT WILL BE ACHIEVED.]

Vivian Le:
But probably the two most anticipated items at the event were a pair of bronze animal heads from China. One of a rabbit and one of a rat, that dated back to the 18th century Qing dynasty.

Audrey Wang:
They’re quite odd-looking. And I don’t find them beautiful.

Vivian Le:
This is Audrey Wang. She’s a historian of Chinese art and is an Asian art specialist with Christie’s auction house.

Audrey Wang:
Through my time, I had the opportunity to work with some pretty amazing art.

Roman Mars:
On the third and final day of the auction, the bronze heads went up for sale one at a time, starting with the rat.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Vivian Le:
The opening bid started at 9 million euros.

Roman Mars:
It quickly rose to 10 million.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Vivian Le:
Then, it jumped to 13 million.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Roman Mars:
Then, someone bid 14 million euros by telephone.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Vivian Le:
It sold to the unseen telephone buyer for 14 million euros.

Vivian Le:
The rabbit bronze followed a similar pattern.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Vivian Le:
With the same unnamed bidder winning the second bronze for the same price.

Audrey Wang:
After lots of bidding, I believe it was a Chinese collector called Cai Mingchao, who eventually bought the heads, or rather was successful in bidding for the heads.

Vivian Le:
Cai Mingchao was an art collector and dealer based in China, so it wasn’t all that surprising that he was the winning bidder.

Roman Mars:
But what was surprising was what happened next.

ARCHIVAL TAPE:
[HAVING BIRD NEARLY $40 MILLION AT AUCTION LAST WEEK, CAI MINGCHAO, NOW, WON’T PAY UP.]

CAI MINGCHAO:
[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Cai Mingchao (via translation):
We have stood up. And thankfully I was given this opportunity, which I felt was my responsibility. And what I want to stress is I will not pay for this bid.

Roman Mars:
He refused to pay the tab as an act of protest.

Audrey Wang:
It was a statement. He was making a statement.

Vivian Le:
As it turns out, the rabbit and rat bronzes weren’t just decorative works of art meant to sit under a dusty glass case in some private collection.

Roman Mars:
The animal heads were looted from China during one of the worst incidents of cultural vandalism the country has ever seen. By stopping the sale, Cai was signaling to the world that China wanted its stuff back.

Vivian Le:
These bronze heads are at the center of a big fight over the repatriation of Chinese cultural heritage. But it’s not because of their artistic value. It’s because of the story behind them, and what that story means to the government of China.

Roman Mars:
Before the animal heads were upending auction houses around the world, they were pieces of a fountain.

Patricia Yu:
So, if we were to imagine ourselves walking into this garden, you would actually see not just heads, but these sculptures that are seated around a fountain.

Vivian Le:
This is Patricia Yu. She studies the history of art at UC Berkeley.

Patricia Yu:
And you would be seeing sculptures with human-clothed bodies, but then the head would be the head of a zodiac animal.

Vivian Le:
The fountain was sort of like an animated water clock, which featured the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. Just as a refresher, the 12 animals of the zodiac are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and the boar.

Roman Mars:
Every lunar year is represented by a different animal. So, you can be born in the year of the tiger, like me.

Vivian Le:
Or, the inarguably cooler, year of the dragon, like me.

Roman Mars:
The bronze fountain heads would spout water out of a different animal’s mouth for two hours a day, every day to signify the passing of time.

Vivian Le:
The animal fountain was a hybrid European and Chinese design built by Italian Jesuits for a European-themed garden within a much larger and much more extravagant Chinese palace complex called Yuanming Yuan.

Roman Mars:
The translation of Yuanming Yuan is the garden of perfect brightness.

Vivian Le:
The Yuanming Yuan was an immense garden complex first constructed in the 1700s for the Imperial family of the emperor of the Qing dynasty. It was his home away from home from his primary residence at the Forbidden City.

Roman Mars:
That is a home away from home that was the size of Central Park made up of hundreds of pavilions, and was packed with all sorts of spectacular art and architecture.

Frederik Green:
This place was huge and it actually held a very, very large part of the Imperial collection of antiquities and artworks. Some of the finest treasures of the Imperial family.

Vivian Le:
This is Frederik Green, professor of Chinese literature at San Francisco State University. He says that the Yuanming Yuan may have symbolized Imperial grandeur, but its story would be defined by tragedy.

Frederik Green:
So, it starts really with the First Opium War 1839, followed by a second opium war. And these wars, of course, were also terrible wars in that they were motivated by, to some degree at least, by a drug that the British then forced upon the Chinese.

Roman Mars:
Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, Qing officials captured a British and French delegation. So, Western forces responded by advancing towards the Yuanming Yuan.

Vivian Le:
But when the soldiers arrived at this vast garden palace, they realized just how many pretty things the emperor had. And …

Patricia Yu:
A frenzy of looting happened.

Vivian Le:
They spent days grabbing everything of value. Gold, porcelains, jades, watches, enamels. And they did it with a kind of bacchanalian glee, almost like a scene from “The Purge.”

Patricia Yu:
I hesitate to use the word delightful because I feel like we shouldn’t use that in the context of looting. But from their perspective, kind of this almost carnival atmosphere of sheer indulgence in the taking possession of, and destruction of the rare and exotic items around them.

Roman Mars:
But whatever they couldn’t carry, they destroyed. They smashed vases and mirrors. There are even accounts of soldiers using rare manuscripts from the library to light their pipes.

Vivian Le:
And the worst part was that the looting wasn’t even confined to inanimate objects.

Patricia Yu:
They also set aside certain things specifically to give as gifts to Queen Victoria, as well as to Empress Eugenie and France. So, Queen Victoria got this little Pekingese dog that was named Looty.

Roman Mars:
“Looty” as in looting.

Vivian Le:
And just in case that’s not icky enough, the British forces were also led by the son of Lord Elgin, the guy who stole the Parthenon marbles from Greece.

Patricia Yu:
There’s a little bit of a family affair in the taking of things that don’t belong to you.

Frederik Green:
By some estimates, maybe 1.5 million pieces were, and all of that was taken.

Roman Mars:
Once everything of value was taken, the soldiers set fire to the Yuanming Yuan. The complex was so large, it took three full days to burn down. Ironically, one of the few structures that survived from this resplendent Chinese palace was the stone facade of the European section where the bronze zodiacs once stood, Baroque remnants of an homage to Western architecture.

Vivian Le:
Sometime during the looting, the bronze heads were torn from their bodies but, at that point, they were just 12 of those 1.5 million pieces, no one paid them any special attention. And they went missing in the chaos, presumably lost forever.

Roman Mars:
That is until the 1980s.

Lark Mason:
I believe it was in the summer of 1987.

Vivian Le:
This is Lark Mason. He’s a specialist in Chinese works of art and president of the Appraisers Association of America. You might also recognize him from a television show that is, in my opinion, an American institution.

Lark Mason:
I have appeared on “Antiques Roadshow” since 1996, since the very first season.

Vivian Le:
But before that, he worked for Sotheby’s. And, in 1987, he received a very interesting phone call from a couple looking to have a pair of antiquities valued.

Lark Mason:
They brought them into our gallery. And I watched them as they opened these up, and put them before me. And thought, “Oh my gosh, these are wonderful. But what are they?”

Vivian Le:
They were two of the 12 bronze animal heads — the monkey and the boar.

Roman Mars:
Mason could tell from the craftsmanship that these were very fine pieces, but he didn’t know anything about the heads. At the time, no one did.

Lark Mason:
At the time I saw them, there was certainly no recognition of what these were in a broad sense. They were very obscure. The whole idea behind them was obscure.

Vivian Le:
The owners of the bronzes believed that they had probably come from the Yuanming Yuan. So, in the process of researching the palace complex, Mason came across some engravings that dated back to the 18th century.

Lark Mason:
They were the equivalent of photographs that are taken by a proud owner of a new house, or a spread in “Architectural Digest.”

Roman Mars:
And in these architectural engravings were the bronze zodiac heads ornamenting a fountain. Mason was actually one of the first people to figure out that the heads had been disassembled from the fountain.

Lark Mason:
As far as I knew, at the time when I saw the first two, I did not know there were 12 even. I just saw these two animal heads.

Vivian Le:
Mason was aware of the history of the Yuanming Yuan, but the owners had technically purchased the heads legally. And this type of sale is pretty normal in the art market. If anything, being able to establish a chain of custody that proved their Imperial provenance made them more valuable.

Roman Mars:
When the heads went up for auction, Mason estimated the bronzes might be worth anywhere from $60-80,000. But the sale went even better than he expected.

Lark Mason:
The monkey had, surprisingly enough, made $150,000. And for the boar head, it was $95,000.

Vivian Le:
After that, other bronze heads began slowly popping up in the art market. The next to appear were the ox, tiger, and horse in 1989. And by then, the profile of the bronzes had only grown.

Lark Mason:
It was in the 3, 4, 500,000 range for each head.

Roman Mars:
And then, in the year 2000, three bronze heads went up for sale. The tiger head was being sold by Sotheby’s, while the ox and monkey were handled by Christie’s.

Audrey Wang:
We gave this auction the code name Yuanming Yuan, and that was kind of where all the trouble started.

Vivian Le:
This is Audrey Wang again, the art specialist who had worked at Christie’s. At the time, she was helping to arrange the sale of the ox and the monkey heads. And she expected the sale to be business as usual.

Audrey Wang:
We’ve always had an Imperial sale. We were just doing the same thing.

Roman Mars:
But this sale went very differently than the last time the bronzes went up for auction. Sure, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were just doing what they’d always done — selling valuable antiquities. But what they didn’t realize was that the sentiment around the bronzes has shifted.

Vivian Le:
Wang says that on the day of the auction, she was met with a sea of protesters trying to block the sale of the heads.

Audrey Wang:
And I was shocked to be confronted with an angry mob.

Vivian Le:
She said that in order to keep protesters out, the hotel where the auction was being held pulled down metal shutters to block anyone from entering the building.

Audrey Wang:
And as the metal shutters were coming down, the main protestor, he did an Indiana Jones-style roll under the shutters, and managed to make it in shouting ‘the auction houses were the traitors’, and that the heads belonged China.

Roman Mars:
These protesters believed that the heads were more than just pieces of art that could be auctioned off to the highest bidder. They were cultural heritage that should be returned back to China.

Vivian Le:
Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, discussions about the protection of cultural heritage increased all over the world. But by the 2000s, these discussions became directed at auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, especially when it came to the protection of Chinese cultural heritage.

Audrey Wang:
That was the very start of when all the talk about repatriation, you know, when it all started.

Roman Mars:
So, even though it might be legal to put it up for sale, advertising that a Chinese antiquity came from the Yuanming Yuan was essentially advertising that it was pilfered from the palace. Literally, everything from that place was loaded.

Patricia Yu:
You can’t whitewash the history of their movement.

Vivian Le:
Patricia Yu, again.

Patricia Yu:
We know exactly what was destroyed. We know exactly when it happened.

Vivian Le:
Millions of antiquities have been illegally taken from China. But the bronze heads, in particular, have been a huge focal point in repatriation efforts. They’ve, in a way, become mascots for the return of cultural property.

Frederik Green:
They really have become national symbols, they have become symbols of patriotism.

Vivian Le:
One reason they’re so sought after is that there’s documented visual proof that these heads once stood at the Yuanming Yuan.

Roman Mars:
But there’s also something captivating about the idea of traveling around the world to different international auction sites, trying to track down the 12 missing animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Patricia Yu:
Yeah, there is something very quest-like about it because it’s a known set. With the zodiac animals, everyone knows there’s 12. Everyone knows the order. So, what it means is we kind of know exactly who’s still missing.

Roman Mars:
Finding the missing heads was such an evocative goal that even Jackie Chan got involved.

Patricia Yu:
Jackie Chan, very storied martial arts actor of the Hong Kong martial arts movie scene, has also been a quite vocal proponent of the repatriation of looted Chinese artifacts.

Auctioneer:
Ladies and gentlemen, there are only four in the world.

Vivian Le:
Chan even wrote, directed, and starred in a martial arts action film called “Chinese Zodiac.”

Patricia Yu:
He plays a kind of Indiana Jones-like adventuring figure.

Roman Mars:
It’s a huge day for Indiana Jones references.

Vivian Le:
In the film, Chan plays a treasure hunter tasked with finding the lost zodiac heads. It actually became one of the highest-grossing domestic films in China.

Patricia Yu:
I mean, the movie itself is, quite frankly, not good as a movie.

Roman Mars:
But it is good as a vehicle to see Jackie Chan jump out of an airplane and land on an active volcano.

Vivian Le:
In reality, repatriating the bronze heads and other illicitly stolen property back to China doesn’t usually require a bullwhip and a leather jacket, just a really big bank account.

Vivian Le:
All of the auctions in 2000, 2003, in 2007, ended with the heads being purchased either by groups affiliated with the Chinese government or by billionaires who purchased and then donated the heads back to China.

Roman Mars:
It may sound a little contradictory to both protest and participate in the sale of looted artifacts, but sometimes the easiest way to get around the red tape of international property law is to whip out your pocketbook.

Patricia Yu:
I kind of feel like then it just becomes like, “Okay fine, if you won’t just give them back through legal channels, well, my wallet’s bigger than yours.”

Vivian Le:
There’s a very clear message that the bronze heads communicate every time they show up at an auction house. It’s the same narrative that has protesters rolling under metal shutter doors, or inspires Jackie Chan to make huge blockbuster movies about it.

Patricia Yu:
There’s no real ethical or moral reason to hold onto known looted objects. So, yes, I feel like giving them back is probably the right thing to do.

Vivian Le:
It is the right thing to do. But this is where the noble act of finding and returning the bronze heads starts to get muddy because, in the case of the heads, the “right thing to do” can happen for the wrong reasons.

Lark Mason:
They’re part of culture, they are a response to culture, but they are used for political purposes in different ways at different periods of time.

Vivian Le:
There are some people who have actually questioned the Chinese government’s efforts to repatriate the heads. People like Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei:
This is Ai Weiwei. I’m a artist and… Well, normally, they just call me an artist.

Vivian Le:
Ai Weiwei has been openly critical of the Chinese government’s mission to repatriate the bronze heads. So, much so that he even created his own art piece called Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which was a re-interpretation of the bronzes. To Ai the animal heads aren’t Chinese cultural relics at all, especially if you consider that the bronze heads were actually designed by Europeans.

Ai Weiwei:
The work was made by a famous Italian priest working in Imperial court. So, by its design and its craftsmanship, and how it functions in this Imperial Garden is not very Chinese. But then, to choose that as a Chinese treasure is ridiculous.

Roman Mars:
If you go back to 1987, when the first two bronze heads appeared on the scene, no one was looking for them. In fact, Chinese leadership wasn’t dwelling on the history of the Yuanming Yuan at all.

Vivian Le:
The Yuanming Yuan was a mostly neglected site throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Artists like Ai Weiwei took over the space and actually lived and worked in the forgotten ruins of the European garden. He says that pig farmers nearby would actually use the marble of the ruins as building material for their homes.

Ai Weiwei:
And the local farmers would bring back these marble pieces to use it as their house’s foundation. So, often, if you walk around, they can see, “Oh, here’s a piece of Yuanming Yuan.” Because nobody care.

Vivian Le:
But that all changed after 1989.

Archival Tape:
On the streets leading down to the main road to Tiananmen Square, furious people stared in disbelief at the glass…

Frederik Green:
1989, of course, these events at Tiananmen Square, some people in the party – some party elders – interpreted these, of course, as a challenge to communist rule.

Vivian Le:
In response to the events at Tiananmen Square, Chinese leadership felt that they needed to restore communist party loyalty in younger generations. They did this by reshaping China’s historical memory through a curriculum called Patriotic Education.

Zheng Wang:
Patriotic Education Campaign started shockingly after the students’ movement in 1989. And it’s related with change of the history textbooks.

Vivian Le:
This is Zhang Wang, a professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

Vivian Le:
Patriotic Education was supposed to boost national pride and loyalty. The curriculum glorified the communist party and played up the ways that China had been exploited by foreign powers.

Roman Mars:
And at the heart of the Patriotic Education Campaign was the Century of Humiliation.

Zheng Wang:
The concept of the Century of Humiliation is a special narrative in China, because during this roughly 100 years, China suffered a lot of foreign invasions and lost wars. And so, the Chinese consider this is like the darkest period of time in their history.

Vivian Le:
Beginning with the First Opium War in 1839, and lasting all the way until the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was getting absolutely clobbered by foreign forces. It experienced unequal treaties, loss of territory, and multiple wars.

Roman Mars:
And because of the tremendous loss of cultural heritage that took place, a key event in the Century of Humiliation was the plunder of the Yuanming Yuan.

Zheng Wang:
The Yuanming Yuan became, to some extent, it’s a symbol of the national humiliation. And so, it’s being used as a site for the Patriotic Education.

Roman Mars:
The goal was to make sure younger generations never forgot the lowest period in Chinese history or the destruction of Chinese culture by foreign invaders. The Yuanming Yuan and the bronze zodiac heads were physical reminders of imperialist aggression.

Zheng Wang:
Chinese government used this zodiac heads as huge propaganda to try to generate the feelings of the Chinese being insulted by the foreigners.

Vivian Le:
But critics like Ai Weiwei have pointed out that if the Chinese government wanted to bring attention to the destruction of Chinese heritage, maybe it should look at its own actions.

Ai Weiwei:
So, China has been victimized by the imperial states, but still China is a bigger victim by its own government.

Vivian Le:
Just to take one example, during the cultural revolution, countless amounts of Chinese relics and cultural heritage sites were destroyed at the hands of the communist party. So, to Ai Weiwei focusing on the story of the bronze heads felt like an incomplete telling of history — that the Chinese government was manipulating the past to frame the communist party as the victims, rather than the perpetrators of culturally destructive practices.

Ai Weiwei:
And that’s how they can manipulate humans’ understanding and their judgment. And that is the most evil, but also most efficient way.

Roman Mars:
In many ways, this nationalistic strategy worked.

Zheng Wang:
In the 1980s, the Chinese young people went to straight to protesting dictatorship to asking for democracy. But in the 1990s and 2000s, they actually went to straight protesting the foreign powers, the foreign hostilities.

Roman Mars:
China is now an emerging global superpower. But chasing bronze heads from one auction house to another was a way of keeping this sense of victimization alive.

Vivian Le:
But while keeping people’s attention towards the bronze heads and the century of humiliation has been beneficial for the Chinese government, they’re not the only ones who have something to gain.

AUCTIONEER:
[SPEAKING IN FRENCH]

Roman Mars:
After the 2009 Yves Saint Laurent auction, that was famously sabotaged by Cai Mingchao, the rabbit and the rat were withdrawn from sale. They were eventually bought by Francois Pinault, the owner of Christie’s Auction House. And in 2013, Pinault gifted the heads to the Chinese government as an act of friendship between their two nations.

Vivian Le:
Shortly after Pinault gifted the heads, Christie’s became the first international auction house to receive a license to operate on mainland China. So, of course, there are other ways to interpret this act of friendship.

Frederik Green:
I don’t want to be cynical. Donating them back to China, of course, was the right thing to do…

Vivian Le:
Frederik Green again.

Frederik Green:
But then, of course, you have this entanglement with business, and favoritism, and commercialism.

Vivian Le:
If Green sounds conflicted there, that’s not unusual. Almost everyone I spoke with for this story wants to see all 12 bronze heads end up back in China. After all, it makes perfect sense that illegally stolen relics should be returned back to their country of origin, whether it’s Greece, Ethiopia, or China. But, on the other hand, many people don’t like the way the “right thing to do” has itself been commandeered for political purposes.

Roman Mars:
The bronze heads have the unfortunate burden of being both cultural heritage and propaganda. But, as Patricia Yu says, any national treasure is at least a little bit of both.

Patricia Yu:
We’re quite selective about how we choose to remember any particular place or event. I just come from the sense like nothing is neutral, that all of the values that we put upon objects and sites, they are constructed, they are negotiated, they are challenged.

YUANMING YUAN CEREMONY TAPE:
[CHINESE LANGUAGE]

Roman Mars:
In December of 2020, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in China celebrated a big victory. To mark an important anniversary of the sacking of the palace complex, the bronze horse head went on display at the Yuanming Yuan Park. It was the first zodiac bronze to return to the grounds since they were looted from the site 160 years ago.

YUANMING YUAN CEREMONY TAPE:
[CHINESE LANGUAGE]

Vivian Le:
There was a ceremony with lots of speeches and a countdown to a big unveiling moment. Excited tourists crowded around to snap a picture of the horse inside of its glass case. It’s unclear whether the other bronzes will eventually join the horse on the grounds. As of now, 7 of the 12 known bronze heads have been located and returned back to China. No one knows if the dog, rooster, dragon, sheep, and snake will ever turn up,

Roman Mars:
But, for now, at least one of them, having passed through the hands of Jesuits, emperors, earls and art dealers, had finally come home.

Roman Mars:
Vivian will come back to tell me about what is probably a bunch of really interesting coincidences after the break.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
So, I’m back with Vivian Le. Hey, Viv.

Vivian Le:
Hey, Roman.

Roman Mars:
So, as we are recording, we’re talking to each other on February 12th, Lunar New Year. So, happy new year.

Vivian Le:
Happy new year! Yeah. I guess I have kind of a Zodiac-themed coda for you, which was inspired by Ai Weiwei.

Roman Mars:
Great!

Vivian Le:
So this story has been filled with a lot of odd coincidences. Like we never really intended this episode to release around lunar new year. It just kind of happened because I’ve been working on this for like a year.

Roman Mars:
I know!

Vivian Le:
And it just happened to fall on lunar new year, which is kind of cool. But also, when I was interviewing Ai Weiwei, he pointed out another coincidence, which was that we were talking to each other in February of 2021, which was almost exactly 12 years after the Yves St. Laurent auction, which took place in February of 2009, which was the inspiration for both Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals art piece and also for this piece.

Ai Weiwei:
This year is complete circle of years. So, for Chinese, it’s quite meaningful, but also for this interview, it’s kind of coincident. Exactly 12 years.

Vivian Le:
So it was kismet that we were chatting about this subject at the completion of a Zodiac cycle.

Roman Mars:
And so what do you mean by the Zodiac cycle?

Vivian Le:
Yeah, so we kind of covered this a little bit in the main story, but there are 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac and each of the animals fall in a specific order and correspond to a different lunar year. And the order of the animals actually comes from this ancient folklore called the Great Race. And there’s a lot of variations to this story, but basically, the animals of the Zodiac raced against each other to be part of the Jade Emperor’s calendar and the order that they finished the race is the order that they appear in the calendar. So the Zodiac animals in order are the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and then in last place was the pig. So, as of February 12th, 2021, we left behind the Year of the Rat and have entered the Year of the Ox.

Roman Mars:
That is not the order I would think that they would place in a race but…

Vivian Le:
There’s a lot of drama actually that’s correlated to like this whole story. I don’t think I have the time to explain the entire thing, but yeah. The rat is a crafty animal.

Roman Mars:
I see. So we’re in the Year of the Ox. So we finished the Rat. We’re in the Year of the Ox. That sounds like a good thing where-

Vivian Le:
Yeah. It’s a good solid year. So, hopefully we’re going to be okay. But there was one thing that Ai Weiwei mentioned in our interview that really stuck with me because this is something that I had been feeling deep down in my gut and I didn’t realize that this was a known superstition, but you know how everyone was blaming 2020 for sucking because so many terrible things happened?

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, there were numerous horrible things that happen throughout the year and people were all very mad at 2020 and were hoping that 2021 would be better, but it’s a little shaky as of yet.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. We got off to a shaky start the new year, but Ai Weiwei said that it may have actually been because of the Year of the Rat or the Year of the Mouse.

Ai Weiwei:
Chinese always believe the Year of Mouse would always have a huge disaster and it’s been proved. And it’s strange if you look in the history.

Roman Mars:
So, Ai Weiwei says that we should be ignoring the Gregorian calendar – the year 2020 – and focus on the lunar new year, the Year of the Rat as the source of all of our turmoil over the past year?

Vivian Le:
Yes. And I immediately looked this up after we spoke and it’s actually a documented, eerie phenomenon that something tragic always happens to China in the year that coincides with the Rat. But specifically, during the Year of the Metal Rat.

Roman Mars:
So, what’s a Metal Rat?

Vivian Le:
So I’m going to add one more layer to the lunar calendar that I just explained to you. So, every 12 years Zodiac cycle falls under one of five different elements. So there’s wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. So the Year of the Metal Rat, which is the year that we actually just went through, the 2020 Gregorian calendar year, that actually only happens once every 60 years.

Roman Mars:
So tell me why people think that the Year of the Metal Rat is cursed. Like what are some of the disasters if you go back every 60 years?

Vivian Le:
Yeah. So if you go all the way back to the Year of the Metal Rat in 1840, China had just gotten into the first Opium War, which ended with a lot of loss of life, loss of territory, but with also the kickoff to the century of humiliation. So right out the gate, 1840, not a good year.

Roman Mars:
Not a good year. Okay. We’ve demonstrated that in the piece. Yeah. Okay.

Vivian Le:
And so you, you fast forward another 60 years, to the year 1900. China is in the middle of dealing with the Boxer Rebellion and it’s believed that like up to a hundred thousand people possibly died during this conflict and it pretty much ended the Qing dynasty. So, that’s another tremendous loss of life during the Metal Rat.

Roman Mars:
Okay.

Vivian Le:
And then if you jump another 60 years to the year 1960, China was in the middle of the worst famine brought on by the Great Leap Forward. And it’s actually considered the deadliest famine in human history.

Roman Mars:
Wow.

Vivian Le:
And so if you go 60 years after that-

Roman Mars:
Yeah. It’s 2020, and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic that hit China particularly hard.

Vivian Le:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s spooky.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely a spooky coincidence. I mean, I guess you could either believe that the Year of the Metal Rat is cursed and that maybe we have 60 more years to prepare for the next disaster or you can believe that the world is filled with coincidences and that terrible things continue to happen all the time. I’m pretty inclined to believe the latter. I wonder if you picked any other year and gave it some periodicity, if you would find horrible things happening throughout? But it’s just fascinating that he grabbed onto that and then you got inspired by it. And I learned a little bit about the Zodiac calendar. So that’s cool.

Vivian Le:
Yeah, totally. But yeah, whether you believe the curse of the Metal Rat or not, happy Year of the Ox, Roman.

Roman Mars:
Yeah. Happy Year of the Ox.

———

Roman Mars:
A very special thanks this week to Alison Klayman and Ted Alcorn. And also thanks to Hui-Shu Lee and Greg Thomas, whose interviews did not make it into this episode. If you want to read more about the Century of Humiliation and Patriotic Education, make sure to check out Zheng Wang’s book, “Never Forget National Humiliation.” And if you’d like to learn more about Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, you can visit Zodiacheads.com. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Vivian Le. Mixed by Bryson Barnes. Music by Sean Real. Translation and production assistance for this episode was provided by Wenjie Yang. Our senior producer is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team is Christopher Johnson, Emmett FitzGerald, Chris Berube, Joe Rosenberg, Katie Mingle, Abby Madan, Sofia Klatzker, and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We are a project of 91.7 KALW in San Francisco and produced on radio row, which has scattered like Zodiac heads around the world, but will someday come home to beautiful downtown Oakland, California. We are a founding member of Radiotopia from PRX, a fiercely independent collective of the most innovative listener-supported, 100% artist-owned podcasts in the world. Find them all at Radiotopia.FM. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99PIorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit too, but for pictures and more about this story, go to 99PI.org.

Credits

Production

Producer Vivian Le spoke with Ai Weiwei, artist and activist; Patricia Yu, a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at UC Berkeley; Frederik Green, Associate Professor of Chinese and San Francisco State University; Zheng Wang, professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University and author of Never Forget National Humiliation; Lark Mason, Chinese art and antiquities specialist; Audrey Wang, historian of Chinese Art and author of Chinese Antiquities: An Introduction to the Art Market. Translation and production assistance by Wenjie Yang.

Special thanks to Alison Klayman, Ted Alcorn, Hui-Shu Lee, and Gregory Thomas.

  1. Armel van Erck

    Absolutely loved this episode. So interesting. The breadth of history and culture is fascinating. Thanks so much!

  2. Sean Redmond

    My favourite story about planning and the Chinese calendar is from Japan (and probably other countries in the Far East too). It has to do with the Hinoeuma.

    The Hinoeuma is the Year of the Firey Horse (at least, that is its Japanese name). The last Hinoeuma was in 1966. The next one will be in 2026.

    Women born in this year are said to be firey as the horses of the year. They will find no husbands. As a consequence of this, the number of abortions rose significantly in 1965. The number of children born in 1966 was substantially lower than in previous years. Classes that had 40 children now only had 30 children. It was a boon for those children allowed to live. They had much less difficulty getting into university and finding jobs on the grounds that they were demographically blessed.

    This story was told to me by a Japanese man who was born in 1967. He, on the other hand, was demographically cursed. His parents had waited until the inauspicious year was over. Those classes that had once held 40 children now held 50. He was not a happy child. University and high school were harder to reach on account of greater competition.

    What will happen in 2026?

  3. Thisfox

    What a pity the videos in this article aren’t watchable. A pretty apt and humourous underlining of the nature of this debate though!

  4. Thanks for this great podcast. I used to history in an international British school in Beijing. The Yuan Ming Yuan was my favourite place to visit and to take schools trips – very green and spacious with beautiful views and a fascinating history and lots of stories. One story not mentioned in the podcast is that of the Fragrant Concubine, a Uighur princess who was forced to marry the Qing Emperor Qianlong. Her life is viewed very differently from Uyghur and other Chinese perspectives. Some stories suggest that mosques were built in the Gardens to try and make her feel at home and camel milk shipped in for her to bathe in. More info here:https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fragrant_Concubine

  5. Gene Moses

    Great episode! Fascinating – and the timing with Lunar New Year was perfect too! I loved the quirky story about the Metal Rat years, too! Never would’ve heard that otherwise.

    So glad that Metal Rat is gone, and looking forward to the year of the Metal Ox (from a proud Ox)!

  6. Jax

    I have a feeling in most countries including China, most art is stolen and preserved or destroyed. Definitely an interesting subject.

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