What Happens When Two Countries get a Divorce, Who Gets What?
The Struggle for Custody of Shared Artifacts.
For hundreds of years, the Forbidden City served as the seat of the Chinese government. Built during the Ming Dynasty, the Forbidden City holds artifacts and is an amalgamation of architecture from numerous dynasties. From time to time, exhibitions composed of artifacts from the Forbidden City are sent to foreign countries to be put on display. Oddly enough, multiple collections from the Forbidden City are planned to tour the same countries at the same time. Now why is that?
Long story short, it’s one of the many impacts of the rift between mainland China and Taiwan. However, that begs the question, what is the cause of the disagreement between mainland China and Taiwan? Well, during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, prior to and during World War II, the artifacts in the Forbidden City were placed at risk. In order to preserve and protect them, the Chinese government packaged and sent the artifacts to various provinces in China for safekeeping. While that is all well and good, why were the artifacts not returned to the Forbidden City?
Even after the end of the second World War, China still faced many internal issues, namely the ongoing conflict between the Nationalists and Communists. To prevent the Communists from recovering that artifacts at Nanjing, the Nationalists removed the artifacts and sent them to Taiwan, where they have remained to this day. Mainland China is pushing for the reunification of all of the artifacts in Beijing; where they would be added to the others within the Palace Museum (located within the Forbidden City).
For both mainland China and Taiwan, the artifacts from the Forbidden City are ties to their past and are used to represent their culture. Sending exhibitions to Europe and the United States is just a way to share their history and get others interested in their culture. Taiwan acknowledges its connection and shared history with mainland China, but also seeks to form its own unique culture. The slightest implication of Taiwan attempting to diminish its connection with mainland China’s connection (particularly with artifacts from the Forbidden City) triggers a visceral response from Beijing.
In 2007, Beijing accused the Taiwanese government of attempting claim artifacts in their Palace Museum did not originate from Beijing’s Forbidden City. Kathrin Mure reports in her article that a newspaper in mainland China went as far to say: “If you strip out such Chinese things as language, characters, personal and place names, literature, history and customs, what would be left of Taiwanese island culture”. China’s response to a simple misunderstanding (the artifacts were in fact labeled as originating from the Forbidden City) only goes to show the strained relationship between the two states.
As a result, China and Taiwan send out exhibitions independently of each other, even though the artifacts are all representing the same place. However, it is interesting to note that the Taiwanese collection is composed of mostly pre-Ming dynasty art as well as paintings and calligraphy (which were easy to package and transport). It is unlikely that Taiwan will give up its artifacts seeing that they are a point of cultural pride and also it would be bowing down to the demands of mainland China.
There are no easy or short fixes for such a complicated problem. However, China and Taiwan have made a few steps to normalize their relations in to artifact exchange. According to an article written by Chris Gill, in 2010, Cai Wu, China’s minister for culture, visited Taiwan as a first visit to set up exchange relationships. Because Taiwan has anti-seizure laws, mainland China does not need to worry about Taiwan keeping artifacts sent from Beijing. And in past exchanges with other mainland provinces, Taiwan has never withheld artifacts. So perhaps in a few years a normalized exchange between mainland China and Taiwan can become a reality.
But, what is the big deal surrounding these artifacts from the Forbidden City and why should anyone even care? Artifacts from the Beijing Palace museum represent mainland China on the world stage, presenting years of Chinese culture for the world to examine. Taiwan sending out separate exhibitions containing artifacts originating from the same place, challenges China’s authority as well as claim to the artifacts, and in extension represents Taiwan’s refusal to give up their sovereignty. The willingness to exchange artifacts represents warmer relations between the two states, but does not mean that Taiwan accepts mainland China’s: One China Policy. Hopefully, warmer relations will result in stability between the two states, in a region which is growing increasingly unstable.