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Almost 75 years ago, the world’s largest collection of Chinese artefacts and art was moved from Beijing’s Forbidden City to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan.

The transference of the artefacts, which numbers more than 600,000, was orchestrated by Chiang Kai-shek, the former leader of China’s ruling nationalist party Kuomintang (KMT), as he escaped Mao Zedong’s communist Red Army in 1949 by fleeing to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war.

Today, China wants the collection back. The artefacts have been housed at Taipei’s National Palace Museum since 1965, but are increasingly at the root of a fomenting dispute between China and Taiwan.

The National Palace Museum’s position is clear. It has unconditionally refused to return any of the items formerly displayed in Beijing. The museum also refuses to loan the artefacts to other countries due to fears they might be seized and repatriated to the Chinese mainland.

The museum, then, can be seen as a microcosm for the intensifying political tensions and historical conflicts that define China’s relationship with its Taiwanese neighbour.

In April, China sent warships, including an aircraft carrier, into the seas around Taiwan, the latest in a series of provocative statements and actions. In a public address in October 2021, the Chinese president Xi Jinping stated that “reunification” with Taiwan “must be fulfilled”. At the same time, Taiwanese museum officials claim, China launched an aggressive digital misinformation campaign to try and discredit the museum.

Last October, it emerged that three porcelain pieces in the museum’s collection, worth a total of $66m, had been broken. The museum chose not to officially record the breakages at the time, which led to accusations of a cover-up by senior staff.

The story was seized upon by the Chinese government, which attacked the Taiwan authorities in a state newspaper, saying that only under reunification could these national treasures be fully protected. A cyber attack was also launched. Countless accounts across multiple social media platforms were created, all accusing the Taipei museum of chronically mishandling China’s priceless artefacts.

“In museum work, incidents like this are not very rare because, sometimes, due to the structural composition of the object, or due to age, objects can deteriorate,” said Tsai Chun-Yi, the curator of painting and calligraphy at the National Palace Museum, in a BBC documentary on Taiwan that aired this spring. “I do think [at the museum] we take great care of the cultural heritage passed on to us that belongs to people around the world.”

The cyber attacks take many forms. In March, up to 100,000 high-resolution images of paintings and calligraphy in the collection were leaked online after the museum was subject to an extensive digital heist. The artefacts were then put up for sale, often for less than $1, on Taobao, a Chinese shopping platform.

“We are looking into it and have hired lawyers to raise to Taobao the intellectual properties and damages involved,” the museum’s deputy museum director, Huang Yung-tai, told CNN at the time, explaining that the museum’s private server had been hacked.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen

A complex history

“The historical artefacts displayed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, are of utmost importance to China,” says Baoping Li, a lecturer in Chinese archaeology at University College London. The items formed part of the royal collection in the Forbidden City of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). After the founding of the Republic of China (ROC), in 1925, the Forbidden City in Beijing was turned into the Palace Museum to house the royal collection.

Following the defeat of the KMT party by the Communists in 1949, the ROC government retreated to Taiwan, taking large swathes of the Beijing Palace Museum’s collection with it, while Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). “The Nationalist government obviously selected only the most important pieces from the vast royal collection when moving to Taiwan, as a symbol and continuity of their legitimacy,” says Li. Taipei’s National Palace Museum was inaugurated 15 years later.

“The PRC was founded as a revolutionary state bent on destroying the past, which it saw as having dragged down China,” says Ian Johnson, a reporter on China for publications including the New York Times, formerly based in Beijing. “But in recent decades the Communist Party has redefined its mission to become protectors of China’s cultural past. So it now sees the treasures in Taiwan’s Palace Museum as its cultural heritage—never mind that many of those treasures might well have been destroyed if they had stayed in China during the first decades of Communist rule.”

For the governments of Taiwan and China, these artefacts represent an important record of their past. But they are a also a symbol of their political status at a time when Taiwan’s independence hangs in the balance.

The creation of the museum during a period of radical transformation for Taiwan, when the territory was still under martial law, represented a key exercise in nation building.

“The museum was designed by the KMT as a way of showing that Taiwan is the ‘better China’—the one that respected traditions and didn’t destroy them, and the one that looked after the country’s cultural patrimony and didn’t allow zealots to destroy it, which happened during the first decades of Communist rule,” Johnson says.

Under the leadership of its current president, Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan has increasingly turned away from China and towards nations like the US. Nancy Pelosi, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August 2022. In April, Tsai responded by speaking at the Ronald Reagan Library in California during a visit to the US. Tsai has long championed Taiwanese independence from China and has questioned the “One China Principle”, stating that “no such consensus exists” among the majority of the Taiwanese public.

The election in January 2024 will bring Tsai’s second term to a close, and many of her supporters are concerned that the KMT, which has long promoted closer diplomatic ties with China, could take power once more.

“Nowadays, the museum has a more complex role,” Johnson says. “Many people, especially young Taiwanese, identify more with other island nations, such as Japan, the Philippines or Indonesia, rather than with the lumbering, authoritarian People’s Republic of China. For them, these treasures aren’t really about their culture, but instead represent a link that is no longer that strong. To them, the Palace Museum is something from yesterday.”

For Li, the museum’s treasures represent a collective heritage that cannot be forgotten. “These national treasures are the most representative of Chinese civilisation,” he says. “A large number of people in Taiwan regard themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, and the artefacts in the National Palace Museum are certainly part of such identity.”

As Taiwan’s national identity continues to mutate, the collection remains a reminder of how China’s civil war continues to be waged across the strait. The repercussions of this continue to reverberate through the museum. “According to the Communist Party, Taiwan is part of China. Thus, the artefacts are already in China,” Johnson says.

The collection of artefacts held in Taipei’s National Palace Museum is increasingly being used as a pawn as both states vie to assert their authority. It is symbolic, then, not only of a historic conflict, but of an uncertain and potentially volatile future.

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