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How undergraduates uncovered a trove of matchless Chinese artifacts
On December 18, in the middle of finals week, Jeremy Clarke, SJ, and 12 of his undergraduate students drove to a warehouse at the bottom of a dead-end street in Somerville, Massachusetts. Past security guards and down aisles of shelves lined with paintings and antique furniture, they entered a high-ceilinged cement-floored storage room half the size of a basketball court, maintained at 70 degrees. It was filled with what they had spent the past four months searching for: 83 handcrafted, hundred-year-old model pagodas from China.
The hunt began in early September, when Clarke, an assistant professor in the history department, had briefed the students in his 20th-century Chinese history class “From Sun Yat-Sen to the Beijing Olympics.” Between 1911 and 1915, he told them, teenage boys at the Jesuit-run orphanage in Tushanwan, Shanghai, had carved balsawood replicas of China’s most famous pagodas under the tutelage of Br. Aloysius Beck, SJ, a German missionary. Eighty-six pagodas from the orphanage were shipped to San Francisco for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, and were never returned. While at a conference last summer, Clarke visited the Tushanwan Museum, built on the site of the former orphanage. The curators, he learned, were hoping to reacquire the pagodas, but the trail had gone cold. Clarke volunteered to help.
Since joining the Boston College faculty in 2007, Clarke has often assigned his classes research projects involving artifacts (e.g., exploring the Burns Library’s journals of 17th-century Jesuits in China). He told the 25 undergraduates in his class to use any possible means to trace the pagodas’ whereabouts from 1915 to today. At the end of the semester, they’d each write a paper evaluating their investigative methods. “That’s what it started as, a research exercise they would navigate themselves,” says Clarke. “I am an optimist, but to think that the pagodas were nearby would have been ridiculously crazy.”
“We were all a little skeptical,” says Sarah Malaske ’14. “Most of us were just meeting each other that day. . . . It was very disorganized at first, everyone looking on their own.” A few students found journal articles in libraries and online that mentioned the pagodas, but many were in Mandarin, German, or French.
Then the group decided to portion out roles based on their skill sets—they were mostly seniors from a range of concentrations outside of history. Computer science and history major Meghan Daly ’14 volunteered to manage a password-protected website on which the class could pool research. Chinese exchange student Damien Zhang and Malaske, an international studies major who spent the previous year studying in Beijing, translated the Mandarin documents. Others were able to translate some of the French and German. A few history majors began to assemble a chronology. They learned the orphanage had originally intended to sell the pagodas to a museum in Germany, but that the onset of World War I ended the negotiations; that the prize jury at the exhibition in San Francisco had awarded the pagodas a silver medal and the San Francisco Chronicle had lauded them as “picturesque” and “of scientific interest”; that in October 1915 the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago purchased the entire collection for $5,000 (about $115,000 today); that the 92-year-old orphanage closed in 1956 when the Communist Party expelled Catholic missionaries from China; and that the Field Museum had owned the models at least through the 1980s but had largely kept them in storage.
One student reached a curator at the Field Museum, who said that the museum sold all but three of the models to an anonymous private collector in 2007. She wouldn’t reveal specifics. The class then began calling and emailing dozens of Asian art curators and dealers throughout the world. Some had heard of the collection; none had any new information.
But the chief curator of Chinese art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Nancy Berliner, happened to visit Boston College in late September. Finance major Madeline Andreach ’14 attended her talk on China’s influence on global culture, and waited until Berliner was leaving Robsham Theater to ask if she knew anything about the pagodas. “I’ve seen them in person,” Berliner told her. “They’re just outside of Boston.”
“My jaw hit the floor,” says Andreach. She asked where exactly, but Berliner told her she had a confidentiality agreement with the owner.
Maddy Walsh ’14, an international studies and economics major, got a step closer. Clarke had returned from Tushanwan with a grainy black-and-white photograph featuring a row of six of the pagodas. Walsh plugged the picture into Google’s search-by-image feature, which determines if a photograph lives anywhere on the Internet, and the search engine generated one link. It was to the website of a vanity press, and among the sample pages advertising the company’s paper quality was one that included the pagoda photograph. There was a caption. “This collection, currently held by a private American collector,” it read, “represents a matchless example of early 20th-century Chinese art, an invaluable artifact of China’s architectural history.” The page, from a book of photographs, was stamped “for private distribution only”—the book was unavailable to the class. But there was a publication date listed, 2011, and the name of the publisher’s client, Mee-Seen Loong. Walsh searched the name and learned that Loong was the vice chair of Chinese art at Sotheby’s.
Walsh emailed Loong asking if she could confirm the pagodas’ location in Boston. Loong did not respond.
Stuck, the class turned to backfilling the history of the orphanage and the pagodas. They learned that Jesuits started the Tushanwan Orphanage as a refuge for children whose parents were killed in the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64). By the early 1900s it had become a technical school, teaching weaving, painting, woodworking, and printing to some 300 pupils ages six to 16. From a copy of the 1915 San Francisco catalogue, the students learned that the orphans had modeled their creations on pagodas built between the third and 18th centuries (some since destroyed, many still standing) from all 18 of China’s provinces, as well as two from what is now South Korea. Zhang had visited the Linggu Temple in his native Nanjing, inspiration for a model purportedly in the collection.
In early December, Walsh received an email from the Sotheby’s dealer at 4:30 in the morning. While at a cocktail party the night before in Beijing, Loong wrote, she had run into Nancy Berliner, the MFA curator. The subject of the pagodas came up, and Berliner had filled her in on the students’ quest.
Loong revealed to Walsh that she was in fact the broker for the 2007 sale. She shared the students’ story with the current owner, and he was impressed. Would the class like to see them? Loong asked Clarke. Would you like to exhibit a few of them at Boston College?
Six miles northeast of campus, Clarke and the students walked around the storage room and examined the 83 wood crates, some barely a foot tall, others six feet high, each marked “Fragile: Keep dry.” Loong, who accompanied them, asked the warehouse manager to drill open a few crates. “That moment was spectacular. It made all the work real,” says Malaske. They gazed at what the single grainy black-and-white photograph couldn’t capture: the smiling woodland animals carved atop the eaves; the miniature bells dangling from dragons’ mouths; bright, oil-painted Buddhist and biblical scenes in the windows; all preserved.
The group selected three for an exhibition they titled Lost Pagodas Found: From Shanghai to Boston: a 60-inch model of Zhejiang Province’s Six Harmonies Pagoda; a 40-inch model of the Thousand Buddha Pagoda, believed to have been constructed in Beijing in 970; and a 66-inch replica of the 250-foot Great Pagoda of Jiangsu, featuring a carved and painted scene of wayfarers from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (1592). Throughout April, the three structures stood on a stage behind velvet ropes in the foyer of O’Neill Library, where the students had begun their search. A touch-screen, set to the class website, enabled passersby to learn their story. In a way, says Clarke, the pagodas “summarize what is best about the work of the Jesuits in China: sensitivity to local culture and a desire to improve the lives of the people with whom and for whom we lived and worked.”
Soon after the students curated the exhibition, the owner said he would like to display the entire collection in San Francisco next year. The show would mark the 100th anniversary of the pagodas’ American debut.
Read more by Zachary Jason