What Will Be the Fate of China's Imperial Art?
The treasured collection is now ensconced in Taiwan, but Communist officials are adamant about recovering it for the mainland
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The Chinese imperial art collection, treasures representing centuries of Chinese civilization, has become entwined in the tense political standoff between Taiwan and the Communist mainland.Skip to next paragraph
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The artworks acquired over 1,000 years by Chinese emperors have never been far from politics. The passion to possess them has already led to the fall of an empire - back in the 12th century. And earlier this century, the collection escaped first invading Japanese troops and then Communist armies, when Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek seized the royal treasure trove from Beijing's Forbidden City and carried it across China by rail, road, and river to the island haven of Taiwan. They are now housed in Taiwan's National Palace Museum.
"By possessing the imperial collection, we possess the past, the finest works in China's cultural legacy," says Julie Chou, the museum's curator.
"The imperial works held at the Palace Museum are no ordinary art collection, but the sword and shield of Chinese sovereignty," says Antonio Chiang, editor of the Taiwan Daily.
Indeed, the collection contains not only the best of China's ink paintings, calligraphic scrolls, stone sculptures, and bronze icons, but also ancient treaties, maps, royal edicts, and other documents that were signed under myriad dynasties.
Thus not only mainland-based art specialists, but also top Chinese Communist Party officials, are adamant about recovering for the mainland what they see as the rightful spoils of the Red Army's victory in 1949.
"If Taiwan continues to move toward independence, it must return the entire imperial collection to Beijing's Palace Museum," says a senior Chinese official in Beijing.
As tensions ebb and flow across the Taiwan Strait between Beijing's Communist rulers and independence activists here, the collection faces three possible scenarios, say Chinese analysts: It could either be destroyed in a cross-strait battle, split in an amicable settlement between the two sides, or lent to the mainland in a drive to build pan-Chinese cultural bridges.
Each scenario is linked, however, to how the Chinese civil war, which was suspended in 1949 with an informal truce, is ultimately ended. General Chiang, one of the main players in the war, seized the artworks from Beijing's Forbidden City after China's last emperor was evicted in 1924.
Chiang, far more skilled in protecting the cultural relics than he was in the art of war, spirited off some 200,000 works to Taiwan, where they formed the nucleus of a new microcosmic China.
Chiang transformed Taiwan into a small-scale Republic of China by building or renaming streets, parks, universities, and government organs after counterparts on the mainland.
In the hills surrounding Taipei, he built himself an imperial residence and China's second National Palace Museum (a virtual clone of the one in Beijing's Forbidden City), where the collection was finally displayed.
Chiang forcibly repressed Taiwan's native culture, language, and history, and attempted to redefine the island as the new center of Chinese civilization as well as his political realm. During his reign, Chiang's Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang, and the mainland Communists agreed they were both part of one China, although each side claimed to be the legitimate ruler of the entire country, successor to the last emperor and the sole heir of his treasures.
A decade of democracy in Taiwan has set in motion forces that threaten to destroy the rough equilibrium of views and the cease-fire that has guided cross-strait relations for nearly 50 years.
Taiwan's 21 million residents "are moving to recast their collective identity, and a central question in the process is whether they want to remain part of 'Cultural China,' " says Tu Weiming, a China scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Professor Tu says "Cultural China" includes overseas Chinese and others tied to a global Chinese civilization despite being beyond the political boundaries of the People's Republic of China.
Some radical activists here advocate a complete break with mainland Chinese culture to complement a revival of native customs, speech, and traditions.