Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads references a long and ongoing story of cross-cultural exchange and collision between China and the West, beginning with a mid-18th century fountain at Yuanmingyuan, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing. The fountain, commissioned by Emperor Qianlong and designed by Jesuit priests promoting Catholicism in China, was used to tell time: 12 zodiac animal sculptures each spouted water for two hours (or one shichen) each day.
During the Second Opium War in 1860, the waterspouts were looted from Yuanmingyuan by French and British forces. Over the past 35 years, a number of the original waterspouts have appeared in auctions, including a 2009 auction that spurred controversial repatriation efforts and discussions of ownership, due to the European origin of the original designers. At present, seven of the original waterspouts have been located and returned to China, while the locations of the other five remain unknown.