The Chinese Guardian statue taken during the Boxer Rebellion
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A saga of the high seas, martial arts and a precious Chinese statue that somehow made its way to an Australian gallery.

There's a slice of history that Chinese-Canadian author Xiran Jay Zhao believes Western nations have largely forgotten about, but "China certainly has not".
At the start of the 20th century, China was not the powerful nation it is today. Wars were being lost by the Chinese on their own land, and their culture was being looted by colonisers.
Precious Chinese artefacts were too.
The pain and humiliation Chinese people felt then has not entirely gone away.
Looting is still "a source of national shame and anger" in China, Zhao says.
"People are aware and people are mad about it."
Zhao is one of them.
"It makes me feel angry."
In 1972, art historian Joanna Mendelssohn was working as a curatorial assistant at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where she came across a fascinating piece of work.
It was a 140-cm high gold and bronze sculpture of a Buddhist guardian from the Chinese Ming dynasty, dating back to between 1368 and 1644.
"It looks as though he could stop you in your tracks," Dr Mendelssohn says.
She never forgot about the statue and over the years she's wondered about how it came to be at the gallery.
Dr Mendelssohn isn't the only one asking questions about Chinese artefacts, some of which are scattered around the world today.
For China, tracking down missing items is important, not just in order to reclaim the past, but also to reclaim how it is told.
"We can't understand the present unless we understand the past," Dr Mendelssohn says.
In 1900, at the request of the British Empire, a British naval officer based in the colony of New South Wales, Captain Francis Hixson, set sail from Sydney to Beijing.
There was an uprising taking place that would come to be known as the Boxer Rebellion.
Hixson was instructed by Britain to sail to China to help quash the uprising, explains James Hunter, curator of naval heritage and archaeology at the Australian National Maritime Museum.
"Protecting colonial interests" was firmly on the agenda, says Dr Hunter, also an associate lecturer at Flinders University's department of archaeology and research fellow at the South Australian Maritime Museum.
Tens of thousands of representatives of several different countries — including the United Kingdom, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, the US, Italy and Austria-Hungary — got involved.
"They form the Eight-Nation alliance … a sort of overwhelming, [largely] European response to what's going on," Dr Hunter says.
Dr Hunter says it's likely the most that Hixson and his men would have heard about the uprising in Beijing, before they arrived, was that Chinese peasants were murdering foreigners.
But that wasn't quite the whole story.
In 1900, there was immense poverty and famine across rural northern China. 
Peasants, sick of the conditions they were living under, started banding together, Dr Hunter says.
"They armed themselves and they laid siege to Beijing."
At the time, things were not going well for China. For centuries, the ruling Qing Empire had lost wars against Western colonial powers and signed damaging treaties, ceding territory and control.
"China was defeated in every single war against the colonial and imperial powers," says Zhouxiang Lu, a Chinese history expert at Ireland's Maynooth University.
"The country was losing land, losing money, to foreign powers.
It was regarded as a total humiliation."
As colonial powers took hold of parts of China, Christian missionaries tried to convert the Chinese from — amongst other faiths — Buddhism. Christian churches started popping up across the country.
The result was an increasing number of religious conflicts.
Dr Lu says that out of these conflicts arose the Righteous and Harmonious Fists movement, led by farmers in villages. Many of them were well-trained, athletic young men.
"Fists" — which became "boxer" in the Western world — is a reference to the martial arts they practised.
Martial arts training had been a tradition in rural regions of China since at least the 10th century. It served as self-defence.
Throughout its reign, the British Empire stole a lot of stuff. This is a series about the not-so-polite history behind those objects.
But it had a spiritual function, too.
"By conducting this ritual [of martial arts] they believe that the ancestors and the gods and the angels will help them, and so the knife or the bullet won't hit them. They will become bulletproof," Dr Lu says.
The Righteous and Harmonious Fists' enemy was "the church … the missionaries and their Chinese converts", Dr Lu says.
"But also all things foreign. So the slogan for the movement is 'Support the Qing', which is the Qing government, and 'exterminate the foreigners'."
When the Qing Dynasty backed the young men, the movement escalated into "extreme violence", Dr Lu says.
This violence had been triggered by a coalescence of events, including drought, dynastic politics and colonialism.
When it culminated in a siege in Beijing, the Alliance of Nations sought to quash it.
The Qing Empire had its own armed forces, tens of thousands strong in Beijing.
But there were Boxer warriors who believed themselves to be bulletproof, protected by their martial arts.
When they came up against guns, the result was horrific.
It was "a massacre", Dr Lu says.
"How could a human being, an organic body, defend a bullet?
"There's no way they can win."
Tens of thousands of people, Chinese and foreign, had been killed by 1901.
The Chinese fighters were defeated and the rebellion officially over on September 7, 1901, when the Boxer Protocol was signed in Beijing.
The ruling Qing Empire, who had supported the Boxers, capitulated to the foreigners. They were forced under the terms of the protocol to arrest and publicly execute senior Boxer rebels.
It's in the aftermath of this defeat that a boat arrived bearing Hixson's sons, also navy men. Hixson himself had been advised to turn back at Hong Kong because of his age.  
"The main fighting is over," Dr Hunter says. "So what these guys end up doing is a lot of policing and a lot of sitting around, not doing much of anything."
Well, they didn't do nothing, exactly.
A 1905 Sydney Morning Herald article reports that Captain Hixson would be donating to the national art gallery "an ancient bronze statue found beneath the ruins of the Palace of 10,000 Years near Peking [Beijing]."
It could've been picked up by his sons or another soldier but, either way, Hixson got the statue.
And Australia, the British Empire's newest nation, gained an ancient Chinese artefact.
In Dr Hunter's view, the process amounts to looting.
"Whether you're collecting it from an archaeological site, a demolished historic structure, or you're literally walking into a museum, smashing the glass and taking it off the shelf and carting it home, it doesn't belong to you," he says.
"So, yeah, I would call that looting."
But the Art Gallery of New South Wales says it's difficult to know this for certain. It is conducting ongoing work to determine the statue's provenance.
"While the exact site from which the object was taken is not known, its removal during a time of conflict requires careful consideration and consultation," the gallery said in a statement to the ABC.
The gallery said it endeavours to "resolve provenance gaps, particularly when they occur in periods of war, conflict or political upheaval" and that it is "currently collaborating with colleagues in Australia, China and Germany to research objects taken from China in 1900 and 1901, during the Boxer Uprising".
Its statement also highlighted its obligations under the 1970 UNESCO convention, prohibiting the illegal import and export of cultural property, and the 1986 Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act.
"The art gallery is committed to acting in a manner that does not directly or indirectly validate, endorse or provide an incentive for the illegal or unethical trade in cultural property," the statement said.
The Boxer Rebellion is one brutal chapter in a period that China now calls the "Century of Humiliation" at the hands of other nations.
Some Chinese scholars, such as Lihe Wang, have traced the story of "national humiliation" to a propaganda campaign conducted by Beijing after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, which changed a "victor narrative" of Chinese history into a "victimisation narrative".
Zhao sees it differently.
"The culmination of the Boxer Rebellion and that entire century of humiliation — I'm not saying this to excuse the Chinese government's current actions, but I do feel like Chinese people still suffer from a lot of lingering colonial trauma," Zhao says.
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There are Chinese people today re-acquiring Chinese artefacts from other countries, Zhao explains, including by purchasing them at auctions.
"I hear stories all the time about really rich Chinese people who go to these auctions to buy the artefacts back, just to donate it to the country again."
Zhao says these are little steps towards addressing the impact of artefacts being removed from China, something they say is "very alive in the cultural consciousness" of Chinese people.
The century of humiliation "shaped Chinese people's worldview", Dr Lu says.
And missing artefacts are salt in the wound.
"Just imagine you were the dominant power in the region for 2,000 years. You thought that you were the best and the greatest civilisation ever," Zhao says.
"And then, suddenly, in the span of a hundred years, you lose so many wars. And you get your territory taken by a bunch of white people. And the Japanese too. Let's not forget them.
"It's a whole trauma conga line."
Michael Brand, director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, says the gallery would love to know more about how the object was obtained, but that, "sometimes you never know the details".
Retrospective provenance research for works acquired by the gallery before 1970 is ongoing. Since 2015, it has been standard practice at the gallery to investigate the provenance of all works prior to acquisition.
Brand acknowledges the possibility that the guardian statue was looted.
"Whether you call it acquisition, loot, theft, whatever, the fact that [the guardian statue] was coming out of rubble in the middle of a war zone … that raises red flags, I think, in terms of how an object moves," he says.
Emmeline Smith, a criminologist who travels through Asia looking for looted and trafficked art, says "culture objects" are seen today as symbols to establish a "new national identity and cultural identity".
"So, obviously, China wants them back."
As a nation, there is "political willpower as well as the financial power" to retrieve looted objects, Dr Smith says.
"What China is doing is really exceptional, because it doesn't take the long route of perhaps court cases and ethical claims to repatriate its heritage. Instead, it's buying it back.
"In that sense, it is perhaps a little bit threatening to the European foundations of the antiquities trade, because China is redefining the rules of engagement."
Zhao believes there is no honourable way of hanging on to something that was looted.
And, at the Maritime Museum, Dr Hunter says that, "in many cases", when an item is donated from the Boxer Rebellion and other conflicts, "we turn it down, we won't take it".
"So, for example, if it came from China, our belief is that it should go back to China. We certainly won't accept it."
To date, no-one has asked for the Buddhist warrior statue back, Brand says. And it's not up for auction.
So, for now, he believes the statue should be seen — and listened to.
"It's good to look at the object and almost think, what story is the object trying to tell? What would it tell if it could?," he says.
Would the warrior tell the story of sailors from the tiny corner of the British Empire?
Of fists that failed against bullets in a brutal uprising?
Of rage and humiliation?
Or would he tell the story of a people increasingly determined to reclaim the far-flung pieces of their story?
Watch Stuff the British Stole on ABC iview and listen to ABC RN's Stuff the British Stole podcast on the ABC listen app.
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