Thursday, February 18, 2010

Palace museums partner up

On the larger significance of Yongzheng and his wizards.

Global Post, October 13, 2009

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Pity the poor despot Yongzheng.

His brothers keep angling for the throne. His subjects complain he's not really Chinese (they have a point: he's Manchurian). And the wizards he brought to the palace to cook up an elixir of immortality keep trying to manipulate him.

What's an 18th century autocrat to do?

Yongzheng's woes are summed up in one of his imperial seals on display at a new exhibit in Taipei. The seal says: "Being a ruler is difficult."

The exhibit, which opened last week and runs through Jan. 10, shines a rare spotlight on a fascinating figure from China's imperial past.

But even rarer are the co-hosts. The show is the first-ever direct cooperation between the rival Palace Museums in Beijing and Taipei. As such, it's a sign that warming cross-strait relations are now moving beyond commercial ties and into culture, too.

"It's an important symbol for cross-strait relations, especially cultural relations," said Zheng Xinmiao, director of Beijing's museum, at a press conference in Taipei. "The two palace museums share a common history. Now, the door has opened for us to work together."

The original museum is in Beijing's Forbidden City. It was opened to the public in 1925 after the last Qing emperor was kicked out. In the 1940s, the Kuomintang boxed up all the museum's best treasures and fled to Taiwan. They built Taiwan's National Palace Museum outside Taipei to house the booty. Beijing has fumed ever since. Simply put, it wants its stuff back.

That's not likely to happen anytime soon. The treasures are firmly ensconced in underground vaults on this self-ruled island, out of Beijing's reach. But cross-strait cooperation is the next best thing.

Still, the current exhibit isn't without its kinks. In the exhibit catalogue, the two museum directors can't even agree on the Taiwan museum's name, let alone why they chose Yongzheng for their first joint effort.

In his preface, the Beijing director calls Taiwan's National Palace Museum the "Taipei Palace Museum," since in Beijing's world the words "Taiwan" and "national" must never appear in the same phrase.

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and refuses to recognize it as a distinct nation.

Beijing's museum director goes on to note that Yongzheng is significant because "he was one of the rulers in Chinese history most concerned about ... Taiwan" and told his officials to govern Taiwan with "amicability and sincerity."

As such, he's a timely symbol of China's goodwill toward the island — and a reminder that Taiwan was once very much part of Qing imperial territory.

Taiwan's museum director, on the other hand, says in a separate preface that Yongzheng was chosen because both museums have a lot of his things — books, documents, paintings, ceramics and imperial knick-knacks — and he's never had a chance to shine in his own exhibit.

Yongzheng has gotten short shrift because his 13-year rule was sandwiched between two of China's great rulers: his better-known father Kangxi (ruled 1661-1722) and son Qianlong (ruled 1736-1795).

"His reign was a transition period," said Wang Fan-sen, Director of the Institute of History and Philology at Taiwan's Academia Sinica.

Yongzheng's also got something of a shady reputation. To this day, controversy rages over whether he usurped the throne. An imperial edict issued after his dad's death, and on display in the exhibit, purportedly proves he was legit.

He was a ruthless leader, consolidating Qing imperial power, censoring anti-Qing writing and expanding an elaborate snitching system to keep tabs on far-flung officials. Oh, and he had a habit of ordering people to off themselves, including one of his own sons.

Recent years have seen efforts to present a more positive image of Yongzheng. A novel and miniseries about him became wildly popular in the late 1990s in China. And some scholars have come to emphasize his good points — he cracked down on corruption, moved toward merit-based promotion in the Imperial ranks, scrapped legal divisions that made some musicians and "boat people" outcasts.

Others have panned such talk as "revisionist history," seeing a sly effort to justify China's current regime.

"China is rewriting its histories," said one Taiwan art professor. "My understanding of it is, it's because they want to rationalize autocratic dictatorship; 'In order to have progress, you need this kind of government.'"

Also like China's current communist party leaders, Yongzheng was a master at using Confucianism and other time-honored Chinese traditions to prop up his legitimacy.

He had an even more urgent need to do so. If the Chinese communists imported a foreign ideology, Yongzheng and his fellow Qing were literally foreigners — horse-riding, nomadic Manchurians from the rugged steppes, with their own script, tongue and distinct, martial culture.

The only way for them to occupy and rule a fractious China was to adopt Chinese symbols and ways.

At the exhibit, there is plenty of that on display. For example, Yongzheng appears in paintings as a Daoist immortal crossing the seas in a hollow log, and as a Buddhist llama meditating in a cave, showing his embrace of China's main religions.

The bilingual Yongzheng (he spoke both Manchurian and Mandarin Chinese) also kept duplicate court records in two scripts.

"He was quite diligent, and always felt there was something to conquer," said Academia Sinica's Wang. "But he had some psychological problems. He was always suspicious that enemies were around."

He consulted alchemists and dabbled in long-life potions. Ironically, one of those elixirs may have been what killed him, at age 56.

Original site

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