The Chinese art of elegant bribery

There is more than aesthetics and investment in today's demand for Chinese art. Art has become an “invisible cloak” that helps businessmen navigate Chinese corruption

 

Traditional Chinese art works of the past and present have become increasingly valuable “commodities” for investors of both the East and West. Each year, the Spring and Fall sales of the three auction houses – Sotheby's and Christie’s and the China Guardian – are flooded with gallery owners, artists, buyers and sellers. They are never surprised by the soaring prices and total turnover. Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Fu Baoshi (1904-1965) and Qi Baishi (1864-1957) are the most frequently heard names in any auction houses. They are like Jackson Pollock, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso in western businessmen’s eyes, whose works sell for millions of dollars. For example, The painting "Lotus and Mandarin Ducks” by Zhang Daqian has just set the new record for Zhang at Southeby’s for 191 million Hong Kong dollars (over 24 million USD) this May. 

            Apart from appreciation and investment, it might be an alien concept for laymen outside the Chinese system that one of the most essential functions of art works is corruption. The concept of “elegant bribery”, or Yahui in Chinese, refers to the action and process of a systematic corruption that only involves cultural products and artefacts: antiques, rare plants, paintings and calligraphy as a medium of the crime. Art works, in particular, have become no more than tools of corruptions among officials, merchants, art dealers and sometimes even artists.

The history of elegant bribery can be traced back to ancient Chinese dynasties, and arguably, it has been an intractable problem since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Consider the case of the prime minister Yan Song (1480-1567) and his son Yan Shifan (1513-1565): they were notorious for corruption in general, and they were known to have received elegant bribes in particular. Eventually, the emperor confiscated all of their properties, and over 6000 pieces of invaluable calligraphy and paintings were found— most of them were bribes of their subordinates.

In this article, I am going to systematically lay out why and how Chinese people use art works as a medium of corruption. There are thousands of creative ways to accomplish this kind of corruption without the possibility of being caught. I will only focus on the most common ways of bribery, using Chinese paintings, via both auction houses and galleries.   

The Reasons behind Elegant Bribery

There are at least three important reasons for people to “elegantly” bribe officials in exchange of contract deals, promotions and all sorts of advantages. First, comparing to other types of corruption, elegant bribery demonstrates the “taste” of both the bribers and bribees. Bribes such as stocks and apartments are good investments, but bribes of art works make them “look cool”. The bribed officials possess their very own private collections of certain famous painters or calligraphy works of ancient dynasties. The image of “private art collector” is a perfect symbol for one’s socio-economic status and, more importantly, vanity. Therefore, it turns out to be a norm that the bribers should know the “tastes” of their targeted bribees— what he/she likes— may it be Qi Baishi’s signature paintings of “prawns”, Xu Beihong’s (1895-1953) famous “galloping horses” in ink, or an ivory snuff bottle, carved with the 18 Buddhas at the mid-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)?

Second, although the prices for some of the cultural treasures fluctuate over time, there are masterpieces and precious antiques that guarantee unreasonable profit. Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), one of the most influential Chinese painters in the late 20th century, produces works that ensure skyrocketing prices increase, from approximately 12500 USD per square feet in 2003 to 62500 USD per square feet in 2010 (despite the fact that he has been repeatedly accused of plagiarizing Jackson Pollock). The nominal return of these “commodities” is way more promising than a well-furnished flat or the devaluating US fiat money.

Third, elegant bribery is much harder to trace and prosecute by the police than the other kinds of corruption, mainly because the corruption process of such kind is incredibly discreet. There are no receipts and records of transactions for any of these antiques. In addition, the procedures ensure that the bribing money is whitened. Moreover, there is an open secret that gives “elegant bribery” a competitive edge over other forms of bribery: the treasures do not have to be real. Consequently, the very nature of elegant bribery creates rooms for perfect excuses for the corrupted officials. Even if they get caught, they can either say: 1) they do not know that the paintings are real; 2) the art works are fake and they do not have any nominal values. In fact, in some cases, even the artwork owners lie by saying that the real paintings are fake in order to escape from legal punishment.

Manufacturing Fakes

Even the most famous painters/scholars in history created fake paintings. Ironically, nowadays, the Chinese regard this action as a virtue rather than a vice. They believe that only the true painters can be the “masters of imitation”. For instance, before being famous, Zhang Daqian used to forge paintings to make a living. As a forger, he created plenty of ancient paintings from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Sooner or later, some of these forged paintings were collected by western museums including the British Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He recognized those and he was proud of his mischief. After his death, scholars and the public seldom challenge him as a forger. Instead, the common accepted view towards Zhang’s behaviour is that he is a courageous painter who dared to “challenge the past painters” by imitating them. Through mimicking ancient classic painters’ works, Zhang has successfully become one of them. However, this view does not solve the moral problems of Zhang for having been a forger.

            Ironically, there are many people who forge Zhang Daqian’s paintings (and other famous ones) since the late 20th century. Manufacturing fake paintings is a secret business as well as a “one-stop service”. Discreet “factories” have been set up for creating fakes. For example, in order to forge a coloured landscape painting of Zhang Daqian (3ft x 6ft), the CEO of the forgery factory has to hire unknown but trustworthy art students, artists, or craftsmen who specialize who are proficient in certain techniques of the painting. The division of labour is extremely intensive; hypothetically, the forgery can possibly be divided into seven tasks:

  1. Painting trees
  2. Painting mountains and rivers (which could involve certain painting techniques different from those of painting trees)
  3. Using colours; the coloured landscaping of Zhang’s are the most profitable style
  4. Forging poems and signatures
  5. Forging Zhang’s seals using the right kind of seal paste; the seals are engraved in exact, since the seals’ details can be found in many of his catalogues
  6. Framing the art work
  7. “Repackaging” the fake painting as if it were worn-out over the years.

All of these tasks require enormous practice, energy, skills and a little bit of luck so as to avoid being caught. Informants have repeatedly told me that the fakes are increasingly hard, if not impossible, to detect. With the help of modern technology, the forgers try their very best to study and utilize what they have learnt for years. In some senses, these serious people are printing forged money of the Republic.

The Process of Elegant Bribery: Four Scenarios:

As I have mentioned before, there are countless ways to bribe “elegantly” and “legitimately”. In the following, I will present four most common scenarios down:

The First Scenario:

The corrupted official can sell a fake painting at any rigged gallery. After coordinating with the official, the briber will go to the designated gallery and buy it at the agreed price plus the commission of the gallery owner. All of the three parties know that the painting is fake, but eventually they are all benefited. This fake painting can be reused and it can go through another bribery circulation of other “elegant” buyers and sellers.

The Second Scenario:

The briber puts a real and expensive painting at the gallery. The gallery marks down the price as if it were a fake painting. The official buys it as if he has the greatest bargain on earth. Sooner or later, the official can resell it at the right place, at the right time, and at the right price.

The Third Scenario:

The briber visits the official and gives him/her a real or fake painting as a present. Three days later, a seemingly unrelated person knocks the door of the official and buys that particular painting at an unreasonably high price. This buyer is actually a trusted subordinate of the briber, and, by doing so, the whole process does not involve the gallery whose owner will certainly ask for a commission.

The Fourth Scenario:

There are rigged auction houses all over China and they become the most suitable places for elegant corruption. The briber, first of all, gets a fake painting either from a gallery or a fake painting factory. Then, s/he provides relevant document proof of scholars and experts to take care of the problem of authenticity. These scholars and experts are paid to confirm the authenticity of this fake painting. They falsify every historical detail, evidence of painting style and scientific verification of the materials used. The forged painting is then given to the official as a gift and is auctioned at a very high price. Eventually, there is always someone coming from nowhere who wins the bid. Again, the bidder is a trusted person of the briber. These auction houses get hush money before the whole corruption process is completed.

Conclusion: Corruption with Chinese Characteristics 

Every society manifests that it is a crime to bribe. However, when it is done repeatedly and discretely on a daily basis with offenders getting away with it, people might no longer be sure whether it is morally acceptable to do so. Corruption is the hidden golden rule of China. Bribers are very eager to satisfy the desire of their targeted bosses. They would all look at the issue neutrally by stating that it is an inevitable “transaction cost”. In this sense, art may mean something else in China. They may no longer be individual expressions of someone’s concepts or feelings. They may no longer be the vital essence of human beings that bring impacts to society at large. For any businessmen, art is no more than a profitable commodity that feeds their families. However, as for the elegant bribers and bribees, art is the most convenient “invisible cloak” that helps them survive at the era of Chinese corruption.

About the author

Antony Ou is the Research Director of China Focus at the Centre for Strategic Research and Analysis (CESRAN) and China Review Editor at Political Reflection Quarterly.