China finally playing the palace; Art: After 50 years of separation, the mainland is sending exhibits to Taiwan's National Palace Museum, but a masterpiece of trust it isn't.


TAIPEI, Taiwan -- This year, for the first time, mainland China is sending exhibitions to archrival Taiwan's National Palace Museum -- home of the world's greatest collection of Chinese art and a sore point in their cross-strait rivalry.

"The Mysteries of San-hsing-tui," which features bronze, gold and jade relics from a 3,000-year-old Chinese kingdom, came here last spring. Another exhibit showcasing silk, lacquerware and paintings from the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) opens this month.

Despite the influx of art from the mainland, the Palace Museum won't be returning the favor anytime soon. Officials fear that if they shipped artifacts to China, they might never see them again.

The arrival of mainland exhibits and the resistance to sending anything back illustrate the increasing cultural ties between China and Taiwan -- and the reservoir of distrust that remains after 50 years of separation.

Nestled along wooded slopes outside downtown Taipei, the Palace Museum is home to more than 600,000 pieces of Chinese artwork, including bronze tripods dating to the 13th century B.C. and the blue-and-white Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain so popular in the West. Along with the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre, the Palace Museum is regarded as among the world's greatest.

Mainland Chinese officials, however, see it as a giant cache of treasure stolen by the Nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek during the Chinese Civil War. To them, it is as though a wayward son has made off with the family heirlooms. And the family -- in this case, 1.2 billion Chinese people -- wants them back.

Officials here take the threat seriously. When the museum sent exhibits in 1996 and 1997 to the Metropolitan and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., it did so only after the United States guaranteed the artifacts immunity from judicial seizure.

In recent years, Taiwan has loosened regulations on cultural exchange, allowing more art exhibits from China. For mainland curators, sending shows to the Palace Museum means both prestige and money for cash-strapped provincial galleries. The San-hsing-tui exhibit drew 170,000 visitors in Taipei and made at least a $40,000 profit for its home museum.

This summer relations across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait have deteriorated following Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui's statement that the two sides should try to work out their political differences as equals. Mainland China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and saw Lee's comments as evidence of a further move toward independence.

Despite China's renewed threats to attack Taiwan, the flow of relics from the mainland shows no sign of slowing. China recently canceled a trip by a cultural delegation, but plans for the Han Dynasty exhibition at the Palace Museum are moving forward.

"The artifacts are being packed and they are on their way," says Director Chin Hsiao-yi.

It is easy to appreciate why the Palace Museum stirs so much passion on both sides of the strait. Gallery after gallery presents scores of ancient artifacts brimming with craftsmanship and creativity.

Although the museum can display only a tiny fraction of its holdings at any one time, visitors can see some of the best artworks from China's 5,000-year history in just an afternoon.

In the voluminous bronze section stands a ceremonial wine pitcher, which resembles a bird and dates to the Warring States period -- several hundred years before the birth of Christ. The vessel has a hinged beak and can hold more than a gallon of wine.

One floor up, and about 1,700 years later, sit Ming porcelain vases decorated with dragons, flowers and trees.

One of the museum's most famous paintings, the City of Cathay, is a silk hanging scroll measuring 37 feet across. Five painters of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court reconstructed the former imperial capital of Kaifeng where hundreds of individual figures celebrate a river festival. In one section, the artists intricately render an arched marble bridge crammed with shops and coolies carrying trunks and a sedan chair. In another, they capture simple scenes such as a figure standing on a swing in midair.

Less than a century ago, these works sat behind the towering vermilion walls of the Forbidden City in the heart of what was then known as Peking. The Republic of China took over the collection in 1924 after it threw out the last emperor, Pu-Yi.

The Forbidden City, off-limits to ordinary citizens for 500 years, opened its doors to the public to display the treasures for the first time. After the Japanese annexed Northeast China in 1931, though, Nationalist leader Chiang spirited the collection away for safekeeping.

By truck, raft, ship and train, the Nationalists carried the relics in thousands of wooden crates on a 6,250-mile odyssey while avoiding bombing raids and advancing troops. Facing defeat in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang eventually sent the best of the collection to Taiwan. The last ship pushed off on the eve of Chinese New Year, 1949, leaving 700 boxes on the dock to make room for passengers who were fleeing the approaching Communists.

What China calls larceny on a grand scale, Taiwan sees as cultural self-defense.

Had Chiang not taken the relics, the Japanese might have seized them, museum officials say. Worse, the artifacts might have been lost during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when Maoist Red Guards tried to destroy China's imperial heritage.

"Don't you think what we have been doing should be appreciated by all humanity?" Chin asks.

The argument is appealing, if not quite historically accurate. Red Guards were permitted to raid homes, pillage museums and even burn people alive. But the People's Liberation Army stationed troops in the Forbidden City who protected the remaining antiquities.

Today, many would argue that the collection is better off in Taipei's Palace Museum and its climate-controlled display cases than in the Forbidden City, which is underfunded and rundown.

The Forbidden City is a magnificent imperial palace covering 720,000 square meters, but in recent years its annual maintenance budget has been less than $1 million. The government has finished dredging the trash-choked moat and has built an underground vault to store relics.

Still, the former home to 24 emperors looks at times like a dowager's mansion after an estate sale. The exhibit halls -- which contain imperial robes and ornate, Qing Dynasty clocks -- have a sparse, picked-over look. Dust balls peek out over the tops of display cases, some of which are lighted by grimy fluorescent lamps. Weeds envelop the stone courtyards outside.

Given the current conditions in the Forbidden City and the strained relations between Beijing and Taipei, a homecoming for the great treasures of ancient China is probably years away.

Pub Date: 9/02/99

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