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A Reunified Painting Stirs Big Thoughts in China and Taiwan|
For now, détente has its limits, especially when it comes to art. Although the Palace Museum in Beijing — where “Fuchun Mountains” was displayed before the Nationalists carted it away — lent its Taiwanese counterpart 12 items for the exhibit, the curators in Taipei have been less obliging. During two years of negotiations, museum officials here insisted that they could not lend their portion of the scroll, nor any of the other 700,000 works in their collection, until Beijing enacted a legally binding guarantee against seizure. “It wasn’t even up for discussion,” said Chou Kung-shin, the director of the National Palace Museum.
Chen Hao, the director of the Zhe Provincial Museum in Hangzhou, which has owned the smaller slice of the scroll since 1956, said he found the loan arrangement somewhat unsatisfying. “I think our museum should have the right to display the whole painting as well,” he said. “If we truly cannot resolve this between our two museums, I hope our governments will be able to tackle the problem.”
Although the two governments have larger issues over which to tussle — including the likely sale of American F-16 fighter jets to Taipei or what to do about those 1,000 or so Chinese missiles pointed across the Taiwan Strait — the role of disputed antiquities in the relationship cannot be overstated.
It helps to know that nearly the entire contents of the National Palace Museum in Taipei were brought here from China by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces at the end of the civil war. The journey of one million items of porcelain, calligraphy, carved jade and glazed pottery, which lasted 16 years and covered 6,000 miles, is one of the most extraordinary dramas of modern Chinese history.
The contents of the imperial palace museum were originally carted off in 1933, just ahead of Japanese soldiers bound for Beijing, but the Nationalists kept the relics on the run from Mao Zedong’s Communist forces during four years of civil war before the best pieces were shipped across the strait. “Fortune was with us; not so much as a teacup was broken,” Han Lih-wu, a Taiwanese ambassador who helped move the collection, once told The New York Times. (A few thousand crates of less illustrious treasures were left on a dock in Nanjing.)
Even though Mao maintained a profound disdain toward China’s antiquities, he still kept the imperial collection safe even as he encouraged Red Guards to smash and burn much of China’s ancient patrimony.
“Throughout Chinese history, cultural relics have symbolized legitimacy and sovereignty,” said Ho Chuan-hsing, chief curator in the department of painting and calligraphy at the National Palace Museum. “If you possessed these treasures, you had the right to rule. As you can see, not much has changed.”
Mainland officials have recently toned down their demands for the return of what they consider to be stolen goods, but the state-run media still insist on placing quotation marks around National Palace Museum as if to question its existence.
For now, museum officials in Taipei are savoring what they describe as their King Tut moment — a reference to the blockbuster exhibit of Egyptian antiquities in the 1970s that drew record crowds to cultural institutions in Europe and the United States.
On most days, as many as 10,000 people line up to view the reunited scroll, as well as some of the more notable copies, including one that fooled Qianlong, the Qing Dynasty emperor who fancied himself a learned art connoisseur.
Wang Rongcui, a tourist from the Chinese city of Ordos in Inner Mongolia, was among those who recently spent a half-hour waiting for a glimpse of Huang Gongwang’s masterpiece. Asked about the political significance of the exhibit, Ms. Wang shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know anything about politics or this arty stuff, but it sure does look nice,” she said.
Excerpt from Newyork time reports.