Friday, February 23, 2007

Palace Politics

At dueling "palace museums" in Beijing and Taipei, art and politics go hand in hand

Jonathan Adams
Asia Times, February 23, 2007

When Taiwan National Palace Museum curator Yu Pei-chin began organizing the biggest ever exhibit of highly prized ru ware -- rare, light-blue-green ceramics fired in the early 12th century -- she called up her counterparts at Beijing's Palace Museum out of curiosity.

"How many pieces of ru ware do you have?" she asked a museum official.

"How many do you have there?" the official shot back.

"We have 21," Yu said.

"Perhaps we have about 20 pieces too," came the response. (Based on public information, Yu guesses the real number in Beijing is closer to 15.)

Yu didn't bother to ask whether Beijing could send over its ru ware for the exhibit -- "I knew it wouldn't be permitted."

So goes the frosty relationship between Taiwan and mainland China, which extends even to their cultural institutions. For decades, the cross-strait political impasse has spurred an enduring rivalry between government-run "palace" museums showcasing the cream of imperial Chinese art in Beijing and Taipei.

To this day, Beijing has the palace (more commonly known as the Forbidden City), while Taiwan possesses the best of the collection -- a fact that has been a long-standing bone of contention for Beijing and for Chinese nationalists. (One former employee of Taiwan's museum said that while she was studying art history in Paris, some earnest students from China constantly badgered her about how Taiwan must give back the art it had "stolen".)

The politicization of the collection is a source of frustration for Chinese art lovers and experts on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, who have nonetheless quietly built up contacts in the past decade through conferences and informal exchanges.

"The museum field shouldn't be political, but unfortunately the two palace museums cannot avoid politics," said another curator at Taiwan's museum.

Politics intruded once again recently, as the palace museum in Taipei held its grand reopening celebration last week after a long renovation. Beijing museum officials accused Taiwan's government of revising the museum's charter to de-emphasize the collection's Chinese essence.

Their complaints were echoed by some opposition legislators in Taipei, who accuse Taiwan's government of waging a "cultural revolution" to suit a pro-independence agenda.

Taiwan's museum director has denied any such campaign, but acknowledged the cabinet-proposed charter change, which would revise the wording of the museum's mission from collecting artifacts from ancient China to collecting "domestic and foreign" art. (That proposal awaits approval from the opposition-controlled legislature.)

In fact, throughout the collection's history, art and politics have been inseparable.

The Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) was fond of defacing palace artwork -- including some of the ru ware now on display in Taiwan -- with critiques or laudatory poems.

Ever since, successive governments have been putting their own stamp on the collection.

When Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang party fled to Taiwan in 1949, they took the best part of the collection with them and built a museum in the hills ringing Taipei to house it. During the Cultural Revolution era, that museum became Exhibit A in the Nationalists' claim to be the guardians of Chinese civilization, as their communist enemies across the strait went about destroying cultural relics in the name of creating a new China.

Then, in 2000, Taiwan's collection passed into the hands of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) -- making President Chen Shui-bian the unlikely ward of what are considered the finest treasures of Chinese art.

For some in Taiwan, that was akin to giving the punk-rock teenage son the keys to Daddy's Jaguar.

Chen's political appointees at the museum have scandalized some of the island's traditionalists with moves to strip away symbols of the former authoritarian Taiwanese regime -- for example, by shunting a once-prominent statue of Chiang Kai-shek to a side wing.

Now, the latest director, Lin Mun-lee, is trying to bring a hip, multicultural flavor to the museum. She has invited young designers to create funky products based on the museum's greatest artworks, launched a snazzy publicity campaign to attract a new audience (the title: "Old Is New") and, most recently, brought in a Japanese Noh troupe to perform as part of the reopening celebrations.

Lin casts her efforts to jazz up the museum as ways to depoliticize the art and better connect it with the people, in line with the island's democratization.

But some on the island still can't help but see the continuation of a doomed campaign to play down links with the mainland and bolster a distinct Taiwanese identity.

"The palace museum represents our Chinese heritage," said one former museum staffer, adding that the DPP "wants to cut it off, but you can't cut it off -- the new Taiwan has to come from the old Taiwan. When you don't have roots, how can the flower bloom?"

Still, despite such to-and-fro, low-key cultural ties between the two sides have been blossoming, driven in this case by experts whose passion for Chinese art transcends politics. Case in point: after sparring with the Beijing Palace Museum, curator Yu was surprised to get a call from the Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archeology.

In 2000, more ru ware specimens were discovered in excavations on the mainland, and the Henan institute said that sending over pieces for Taiwan's current exhibit shouldn't be a problem.

Now, 12 sets are on display at Taiwan's museum, thanks to the assistance of a Taipei-based foundation that served as a middleman. The institute's Sun Xinmin visited Taiwan earlier this month for a conference on Northern Song Dynasty art, along with curators from Beijing's Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum.

Yu and others say that such contacts have multiplied in the past decade, as art experts and officials regularly meet in such places as Shenzhen, Macau and Shanghai, and mainland experts make less frequent trips to Taiwan for special occasions.

Those ties are coming at what experts describe as an exciting time in the field.

"New excavations are changing our idea of what Chinese art is. Before we were sort of limited by this imperial collection," said Jane Ju, an art historian at Taipei's National Chengchi University. "There is interaction [between art experts on both sides] already, and there's going to be a lot more going on."

Such exchanges have a friendly and collegial tone, according to participants: they usually avoid politics, except when cracking jokes. (One Shanghai curator offered his solution for unifying the collection to a Taiwanese counterpart a few years back: "It's very simple. Just take all of your stuff, put it on a plane, and send it over.")

More relaxed government policies have facilitated such exchanges. In fact, a top official from Beijing's Palace Museum even visited Taiwan's museum a few years ago.

"The Chinese government has adopted a more open policy, so curators can come here more easily, and our curators can go to China," said Ho Chuan-hsing, with the Taiwan museum's department of painting and calligraphy. "Both sides can compare their works."

When officials from the vying palace museums meet, they often discuss the possibility of cooperation. But that seems unlikely for the time being. Treasures from Taiwan's palace museum have traveled to the United States and Europe, but the museum will not send artwork to the mainland without a legal promise of its return.

That's something Beijing has not, so far, been willing to give.

"It's a sensitive political issue," said the former director of Taiwan's palace museum, Shih Shou-chien, in an interview last year. Shih said the mainland authorities "just cannot treat Taiwan as an independent political entity, so they cannot provide that kind of legal guarantee".

In theory, the two museums could come up with a creative solution to fudge the sovereignty issue, such as going through a middleman, as was done with the Henan artifacts now on display in Taiwan.

And some see a possible thaw in relations if the more mainland-friendly Kuomintang takes power in Taiwan, which could make cooperation between the museums easier.

But for now, the ru ware and other treasures from the palace collection, assembled by emperors long ago, remain divided by cross-strait politics.

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