Financial Times - Taiwan’s remarkable national museum
November 20, 2009

On a cold, blustery day in December 1948, 10-year-old Chuang Ling boarded a Chinese warship in the port of Nanjing, one of hundreds of refugees who spent the next five days on rough seas until they reached the port of Keelung in northern Taiwan.

Chuang, now 71, tells me he remembers the whistle of the high winds and the acrid smell of sickness, typical memories of any stormy sea voyage. What sets this journey apart is the cargo. Every evening Chuang slept next to large wooden crates covered in canvas and tied down with ropes. Inside, wrapped in silk, were some of China’s most precious artworks and antiquities entrusted to the care of his father, a curator at the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing. There were 1,000 crates on that ship. Two other boats also made the same voyage. Remarkably, the precious cargo arrived entirely intact.

That is some feat on behalf of the curators but they were familiar with packing boxes and being on the move. For nearly 20 years the collection of the Palace Museum had been criss-crossing the country to spare it from the ravages of war. This last sea journey was during the civil war as Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists retreated to Taiwan with Mao’s communists in control of the mainland.

After they landed in Taiwan, the collection remained in storage until a suitable space was built. Designed in traditional Chinese style, the National Palace Museum opened in 1965 in Taipei. That was about the same time that the cultural revolution was raging on the mainland, when much of China’s ancient heritage was destroyed.

The National Palace Museum is one of the world’s greatest collections of Chinese antiquities. Andrew Burnett, deputy director of the British Museum, says it is “in the front rank of international museums”.

More than 650,000 pieces make up Taiwan’s collection, from scrolls of cursive calligraphy to ancient bronze bells to paintings of ladies at court. The oldest pieces – a chunky jade necklace and loop earrings – go back more than 8,000 years. From the eastern Zhou dynasty, a simple jade cup marbled with veining was used to collect morning dew and sipped in the belief it might secure immortality.

Some of the collection’s finest pieces are made of porcelain, such as ostentatious Qing vases, classic blue-and-white Ming, and the fragile understated works from the Song dynasty. Rare Ju ware from the 11th century is simple and subtle, described in Chinese history as the colour of sky after rain. Only 70 pieces of Ju ware are known to exist and nearly half of them are here.

It is difficult for outsiders to understand the historical importance of this collection accumulated over the centuries by emperors of China. As Han Pao-teh, senior adviser of culture to Taiwan’s president, told me: “This is about power and politics and symbolism. Our roots run very deep through this collection.” That is why a new exhibition in Taipei is even more remarkable. For the first time, the palace museums of Taiwan and China are bringing pieces from each collection under one roof. Fung Ming-chu, chief curator of the new exhibition, says that in her 30 years at the museum she never dared dream of receiving a loan from Beijing. “You cannot exaggerate the importance of this,” she says. “It is a breakthrough in Chinese art history.”

The exhibition will focus on the emperor Yongzheng, who reigned in the early 18th century during the Qing dynasty. On show will be painted enamel vases, epistles to and from the emperor, as well as agate carvings and lacquer ware. Beijing will contribute nearly one-fifth of the exhibits, including portraits of Yongzheng and some of his poetry written in his own hand. Just by happening, the exhibition is being hailed a success. Businessman Hu Hai-bin, 55, on holiday from China, explained how he had wanted to visit the museum for as long as he could remember. “I’d next like to see plans for a joint exhibition in Beijing,” he told me.

That looks unlikely to happen any time soon. Taipei says there are obstacles to sending artefacts in the other direction. Firstly, they worry whether any prospective loans would be returned. Secondly, Beijing does not accept the word “national” in the Taiwanese museum’s name. “My responsibility is to keep hold of these two things,” director Chou Kung-shin says. “Our name, and the collection itself.”

When I lived in Taiwan in the late 1990s, tourists from China were not permitted to visit the island. The museum was singularly quiet and a wonder to visit. Last year both sides agreed to allow a quota of 3,000 mainland Chinese tourists to travel to Taiwan each day. That has boosted overall visitor numbers to the museum and, nowadays, its hallways can be crammed, like so many of mainland China’s attractions. The best time to visit is during late opening on Saturdays after the tour groups have left and the museum is at its quietest.

Some younger visitors I met did not previously know the museum existed. “The travel agency planned it all and I hadn’t even heard of it,” says Liu Ai-ling, 16, a Chinese student on holiday from Guangzhou. For this next generation, the collection may not be so politically charged. “Let’s not mention politics,” says Ho Pei-yi, 22, a local accounting student from Taipei. “I think it would be good to send an exhibition to Beijing too.”