Terracotta warrior’s stolen thumb triggers outrage from China

Society & Culture

The theft of a thumb of a 2,000-year-old terracotta warrior on display in the U.S. has provoked anger from Chinese internet users and the cultural relics authority of the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, which called for “severe punishment” to be imposed on the perpetrator.

“In the past 40 years, we have loaned our cultural relics to more than 260 overseas exhibitions across about 60 countries and incidents of this kind never occured,” said the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center, adding that it had lodged “solemn representations” with the U.S. side and expressed strong anger and condemnation over such acts of vandalism and theft.

According to an arrest affidavit filed by the FBI, Michael Rohana, a 24-year-old Delaware resident, stole the thumb during an ugly sweater party (an American Christmas tradition) hosted by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on December 21, 2017. After the party, he snuck into the museum’s Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor exhibition, which opened to the public in September 2017.

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CNN reports that Rohana was with his friends when he broke into the closed-off area. After his friends left, Rohana attempted to snap a selfie with the statue — which is valued at $4.5 million — and accidentally broke its thumb off. He then placed the thumb in his pocket and took it home.

But it was not until January 8 that the museum noticed the thumb’s disappearance and the FBI was involved. Surveillance footage revealed Rohana as a suspect.

The Franklin Institute said in a statement that a security contractor failed to follow “standard closing procedures” on the night of the after-hours party. “As a result of this incident, we have thoroughly reviewed our security protocol and procedures, and have taken appropriate action where needed,” the museum said.

According to court documents acquired by AFP, Rohana has been charged with theft of a major artwork from a museum, concealment of the object, and interstate transportation of stolen goods. He was released on $15,000 bail.

In an interview with the Beijing Youth Daily on February 18, a spokesperson from the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Center said (in Chinese) that it would send two experts to the museum with a mission to repair the damaged statue, and that it had already begun the process of claiming compensation for damages.

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On the social media platform Weibo, the news sparked a wave of criticism from Chinese internet users, who attacked the U.S. side from different angles. Some argued that China shouldn’t have lent these national heritage artworks to other countries for exhibition in the first place. “The U.S. doesn’t cherish our historic treasures at all. Terracotta warriors are like mud to them,” one commenter wrote. Others questioned why visitors are allowed to closely observe the terracotta warriors when they are on display in foreign countries, since locals are kept at a distance from the statues at home. “I don’t understand why that American could get close to that statue. When I was in Xi’an visiting the tomb, those warriors were unreachable,” a typical comment reads.