Since the Palace Museum opened its doors on October 10, 1925, it has always been linked to national prestige and political power.
The government of the 14-year-old Republic of China chose National Day for the opening. It wanted to show the modern and reformist government had turned a royal palace into a museum for everyone, following the example of the Soviet Union, France, Germany and other countries in Europe.
President Chiang Kai-shek moved thousands of pieces from the Beijing museum — in 1933 to save them from capture by the Japanese and in 1948 and 1949 to save them from the victorious communist armies, taking them with him to Taiwan.
They were a symbol of the supreme authority of China, to support his claim to be the only legitimate government. When he realised that he could not, as he dreamed, recapture the mainland, he built the National Palace Museum (NPM) to show the treasures to the world.
During the Cultural Revolution, the Communist government closed the Palace Museum – but opened it suddenly on July 11, 1971 to receive Henry Kissinger, on his secret mission to prepare for President Richard Nixon’s visit seven months later. The government wanted to send him a message: “you may be one of the world’s biggest superpowers today, but what were the countries of the West doing during the Tang and early Qing dynasties?”
From then on, it has been a compulsory stop for foreign kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers to remind them of the power and greatness of China.
So the building of a Palace Museum branch in Hong Kong – the third after Beijing and Taipei – has a political as well as a commercial meaning.
“It will help acquaint future generations of Hong Kong with material evidence of the nation’s history and enhance their sense of belonging,” said the China Daily in a commentary on Dec. 31.
A commentary in the pro-communist Ta Kung Pao on Saturday said that the start of work on the Hong Kong branch had enormous significance in the 20th anniversary of the handover. “In the cultural and artistic area, this is a powerful statement of ‘one country, two systems’.”
So Beijing wants Hong Kong people to feel gratitude for the offer of art treasures which museums all over the world would love to have. It also wants the treasures to strengthen the Chineseness of people here. The treasures represent a China independent of the Nationalist and Communist parties.
Some people say that, if the government here had signed a similar agreement with the NPM, opposition would have been weaker. Like the Palace Museum, the NPM only exhibits a fraction of its pieces.
But politics makes such an agreement impossible. The NPM is willing to lend its pieces to museums around the world, subject to guarantees of their safe passage and return. But it will not lend them to museums in the mainland, because it fears that they will not be handed back.
NPM staff complain that mainland officials will not even use its full name – 國立故宫博物馆 – because it contains the two characters “national”. I hear that Hong Kong officials now will not say or write the full name either.
Last October, former NPM director Feng Ming-chu resigned from an advisory post in the Palace Museum she took up after leaving the NPM. Her successor, Lin Jeng-yi, appointed by the new Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government, said that taking the job was “inappropriate”.
Feng said that accepting the post was in accord with Taiwan regulations, involved only academic exchanges and had no political aim. But the public and official criticism was too loud.
If the Kuomintang were still in power in Taiwan, this would not have happened and Feng would have been able to remain in the post.
Since Tsai Ing-wen took office last year, relations with Beijing have sharply deteriorated over her refusal to acknowledge the “1992 Consensus”.
This makes it more difficult for the two Palace Museums to continue and develop their co-operation in scholarly exchanges during the eight years of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency. Mainland museums lent pieces to the NPM during this period.
So the museums are hostage to the relations of their respective governments. A future Palace Museum in Hong Kong will likewise only be able to co-operate with the NPM if Beijing allows it.
The beautiful bronzes, jade and paintings stare innocently at the vistor admiring them — but they are subject to the will of their owner.
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