Earlier this week I took my mother to the Poly Art Museum in Beijing. The museum is connected to the Poly Group, an arms dealing, real estate and energy conglomerate that was born out of the Chinese military. In recent years the Poly Group has bought Chinese relics from overseas and displays many of them in its Beijing museum.
To my untrained eye the collection is impressive. Unlike some other museums I’ve visited which feature hunks of brass or stone that are remarkably solely for their age, items in the Poly collection are remarkable both for their age and beautiful detail. But the most famous pieces in the museum are also the least visually interesting. The Poly Group has purchased three of the 12 bronze zodiac heads that were once part of a water clock in the Old Summer Palace outside the capital, which was largely destroyed in 1860 by French and British troops. Macau gambling tycoon Stanley Ho bought another two heads. Earlier this year, a Chinese antiquities trader won an auction of two heads that were part of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection with a bid of $40 million, then refused to pay.
The heads in the Poly’s collection weren’t on display when we visited this week, as they were being boxed to go to a show in southern China. My mother was able to pick up some postcards showing the bronzes. And I picked up the most bizarre souvenir I’ve ever encountered in China. It’s an Old Summer Palace lighter! The label says Yuanmingyuan, the Chinese name for the palace, and shows a building in flames. The lighter is shaped like a giant match and reads, “The garden of gardens, the Yuanmingyuan was burned down during the Second Opium War.” There is no clue if the match is a replica of the fateful fire starter struck by the foreign troops a century and a half ago, or whether the lighter is intended for use in suitably patriotic events, like burning Japanese flags. The instructions on the back only explain how to fill it with gas.