Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

China nervous about the Magna Carta

Exhibition of an early copy of the Magna Carta was suddenly cancelled and moved in Beijing. The New York Times reports:
Magna Carta — the Great Charter — is on tour this year, celebrating eight centuries since it was issued in 1215 by King John of England. ... One of the few surviving 13th-century copies of the document was to go on display this week from Tuesday through Thursday at a museum at Renmin University of China in Beijing .... But then the exhibit was abruptly moved to the British ambassador’s residence, with few tickets available to the public and no explanation given. (The document is also set to go on display at the United States Consulate in Guangzhou and at a museum in Shanghai, the embassy said.)
One source indicated that Renmin, which has close ties to the government, cancelled the exhibit at the request of the Ministry of Education. A Western academic reacted with a typically dismissive scholastic attitude:
“To get kind of wound up about an old document like the Magna Carta? They’re a little bit brittle and fragile, aren’t they, Chinese leaders?” said Kerry Brown, a former British diplomat who was stationed in Beijing and now serves as director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney in Australia. “Poor dears.”
But the Chinese governments actions more likely reflect views voiced by Hu Jia, "a prominent Chinese dissident," who thought that Chinese leaders worried that the exibit would be popular and that "many students would flock there. ... They fear that such ideology and historical material will penetrate deep into the students’ hearts.”

How this particular exhibit fares in today's China remains to be seen. The collection of evidence on this blog over the years suggests, however, that the Chinese estimate of the cultural potency of ancient documents like the Magna Carta may well be more realistic than dismissive academics like to think.

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