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.
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.
"A handful of pro-independence supporters have said the entire Palace Museum collection should be sent back to Beijing to completely cut Taiwan's ties with the mainland," says Mr. Chiang, the Taiwan Daily editor.
Yet there are equally fervent voices here that oppose sending the collection anywhere outside of Taiwan.
Last year, the Palace Museum's announcement that part of the works would travel to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art sparked popular protests and a heated legislative debate.
"The protesters said they were worried about the safety of the collection, but actually feared mainland China might try to seize the art in New York," says a museum official.
The "Splendors of Imperial China" exhibition was only approved after the Met guaranteed that the works would be "immune from seizure" in US courts by Beijing, says curator Ms. Chou.
Chin Hsiao-yi, former aide to Chiang and present director of Taiwan's Palace Museum, deflected a question about the fairness of keeping the collection in Taiwan, which bars entry to most of China's 1.2 billion citizens. "If the collection had not been moved out of the mainland, it could have been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution - is that fair?" he asked during an interview.
Taiwan opened its Palace Museum in 1965, just months before Chairman Mao Zedong launched the violent Cultural Revolution on the mainland. During the decade-long campaign, China's artistic, religious, and moral traditions were smashed as Communist Red Guard storm troopers jailed scholars and monks and publicly burned ancient artworks and manuscripts.
"As Taiwan began re-creating its society from the ashes of war, the mainland was destroying the last traces of its past," says the Palace Museum's Chang Yun-yun.
In his bid to create a new communist society through force, Mao had to fight a tradition of deep respect for culture and learning among China's artistic and political elite that stretched back millennia. As long ago as the 3,500-year-old Shang Dynasty, Chinese rulers employed artist-diviners to legitimize their leadership, and culture played an increasing role through the ages in choosing imperial bureaucrats.
Founders of the northern Song Dynasty in the 10th century so treasured art that they sent search parties out to gather the best Chinese artists and art, which gave birth to the imperial collection. Generations later, Song Dynasty Emperor Huizong not only expanded the collection but also became one of the most important artists in Chinese history, says Ms. Chang. "Huizong's life revolved around culture, and he chose his advisers based on their expertise in painting and poetry rather than affairs of state," she adds. Huizong "became so enmeshed in art and Taoism that he forgot his throne and his people."
Although he briefly succeeded in creating the world's first artist-ruled state, Huizong quickly lost both his empire and his life. Invading Ruzhen " 'barbarians' from the north overran Huizong's capital in 1126, and he later died in captivity," says curator Chou.
Many scholars at the Palace Museum have a passion similar to Huizong's. "I would sacrifice anything for the museum," says one official, who adds that the collection should remain among caretakers whose devotion is unequaled on the mainland.
Museum director Chin rules out splitting the artworks with Beijing. "Political uncertainties ... mean the time is not yet ripe to discuss lending parts of the collection" to the mainland, he says.
Another museum official, who asked not to be identified, says, "If Beijing can guarantee the safe return of the imperial works, they should be lent to mainland museums."
"It's completely unfair that Taiwan has the imperial art legacy, which should belong in common to 1 billion Chinese," says a university art lecturer in Beijing.
"But," he adds, "the [Communist] Party has a poor record of respect for art and artists. Maybe the collection should stay where it is until Beijing catches up to Taiwan in its treatment of culture."