Five thousand years of history have endowed China with abundant cultural relics. In the past two centuries, a considerable number have been either looted by or sold to other countries because of wars and various other reasons. According to figures from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 200-plus museums in 47 countries house more than 1.6 million Chinese artifacts, while the number in private collections in those countries is more than 10 times than those museums' holdings. That means China's cultural artifacts and pieces of art in foreign countries surpass 10 million.
In recent years, the Chinese have attached increasing importance to relics in the hands of foreign collectors. Private organizations and individuals have been trying every method, including auctions, to reclaim part of them to their homeland. The most well-known example is the China Poly Group Corp., which paid an enormous amount in a 2000 auction to bring three bronze animal statues more than 140 years old back home.
The Chinese Government has always attached great significance to national cultural treasures overseas. It insists that all illegally exported relics must be returned to their country of origin. The government advocates the reclaim of overseas relics through internationally accepted legal procedures and through diplomatic means.
In 2002, the Ministry of Finance and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage set up a special fund for the collection of the most important and precious cultural relics, and the money has been used to support the administration of collecting valuable cultural heritage at home and abroad. In October 2002 a special fund for reclaiming lost cultural relics was founded. In November 2003 the "National Treasure Project" was launched to motivate governments and society in general to bring back lost treasures from foreign countries through various channels.
In fact, there have always been contradictory voices in China as to whether the return of all its lost treasures should be demanded. One side believes the artifacts are the best witnesses to China's ancient civilization and are an invaluable heritage our ancestors have left us. They contend the relics should return home and stay in China forever. But the other side argues they are part of a world heritage no matter whose hands they are in, either those of a state or individuals. They believe the ultimate goal of collecting is the protection and sharing of their unique heritage and value with the rest of the world.