Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Who Owns China's Heritage?

Taiwanese museum has tried to solidify its claim to be a sanctuary of Chinese art and culture. PRESERVING A CULTURE

TWO jade grasshoppers perch delicately on the leafy crown of a stalk of fresh Chinese cabbage, real but for a glass-walled case that separates them from viewers.The exquisite carving, its translucent green and white shades symbolizing the purity of a Chinese bride, was part of a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) dowry and a treasure of the Manchu court in Beijing. Yet today, along with hundreds of thousands of other priceless objects amassed over the centuries by China's emperors, the jade cabbage resides more than 1,000 miles from Beijing's Forbidden City, in Taipei, Taiwan. "All the best pieces are here," says Julie Chou Ling, curator of the exhibition department of Taipei's National Palace Museum, which owns arguably the world's top collection of imperial Chinese art. "If this art had been left in mainland China, it would have been a catastrophe for mankind," says Ms. Chou. "Even now, [Chinese authorities] can't afford to protect the ancient things." Unfortunately, the evidence supports Chou. Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, one crisis after another has hampered experts attempting to preserve the masterpieces of China's rich, millenia-old artistic tradition. First came Japan's invasion in the 1930s, civil war in the 1940s, and then the destructive political campaigns of Mao Zedong. During Mao's 1966-76 cultural revolution, millions of young Red Guards were urged to demolish "feudal" art objects and temples across the country. In the past 10 years, China has empowered its officials to preserve cultural relics. But Beijing still lacks the funds to protect many temples, monuments, and art objects from natural decay and pollution. Most recently, rampant smuggling, thefts, and the illegal excavation of far-flung ancient tombs has emerged as a major problem, robbing China of thousands of valuable artifacts each year, according to Chinese officials. "China has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of crimes involving relics smuggling and theft," said Zhang Deqin, director of China's State Administration of Cultural Relics. Robbers have chiseled out rare Buddhist frescos from the exquisite Mogao caves at Dunhuang, Gansu Province, and made off with thousands of relics from ruins around the city of Xi'an, where China's famous terra-cotta warriors are kept. Most of the smuggled goods pass through the southern province of Guangdong to the British colony of Hong Kong. From there, they are sold mainly in Japan, the United States, Western Europe, Singapore, and Taiwan, Chinese officials say. In a major case last year, a priceless bronze grain receptacle stolen from a museum in Hubei Province was discovered at the Sotheby's auction house in New York, they say. The piece was returned upon China's request.

Growth of smuggling Hong Kong customs statistics show that the number of Chinese antiques confiscated increased nearly ten-fold between 1985 and 1990, while their estimated value more than quadrupled. And in the first four months of this year Hong Kong agents seized over 1,000 objects, nearly the total for 1990. Yet Hong Kong stops only a fraction of relics smuggled out of China, confiscating only those which are detected and undeclared. Smugglers who slip past Chinese customs but declare their cargo in Hong Kong will face no interference in the colony, says Ronald Au, an official in charge of smuggling investigations for Hong Kong's customs department. This month, China plans to complete regulations that will stiffen punishments for art thieves and smugglers, while broadening the reach of the country's 8-year-old relics protection law. But shortages of personnel, money, and equipment needed to enforce the tougher rules are likely to limit their effectiveness, Chinese officials acknowledge. "It is true that problems exist in our work," says Peng Qingyun, spokesman of the relics administration. "China is a big country and there are a lot of channels for smuggling. However, we lack manpower and materials," Mr. Peng said in an interview. Luckily, many priceless treasures of the Forbidden City survived the decades of upheaval and thanks to "miracles in transportation," made the perilous journey from China to Taiwan, says Chou. As invading Japanese troops approached Beijing in February 1933, curators at the deserted imperial palace packed nearly 20,000 crates full of artifacts and spirited them away in wheelbarrows in the middle of the night. The objects traveled more than 6,000 miles, across rivers and mountain ranges by train, boat, and truck. The odyssey ended 15 years later in 1948, when the retreating Nationalist forces of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek - facing defeat by communist guerrillas - shipped crates containing some 640,000 objects and documents to Taiwan.

About these ads

China wants objects back Today, the treasures on Taiwan are safeguarded at the National Palace Museum with a modern, $120 million security system. Humidity and temperature-controlled storage rooms with air filters to keep out pollution protect the art works against environmental damage. Chou says the museum has added to its collection constantly over the decades to solidify its claim to be "a sanctuary of Chinese art." But she acknowledges that Taiwan can play only a limited role in perpetuating the artistic traditions of the world's oldest continuous civilization. "The oldest roots and traditions are there [on the mainland], and we can only try to renovate them from here," says Chou. Chinese officials at the cavernous Palace Museum in Beijing's Forbidden City, meanwhile, assert that they are capable of preserving the imperial treasures as well as Taiwan can. "Neither a single tree nor a single blade of grass has been damaged here over the past 40 years," says Fang Guojin, spokesman of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Other accounts by the official Chinese press, however, show that all was not so tranquil, especially during the decade-long cultural revolution. Red Guards labeled curators of the museum "monsters and demons" and paraded them around the Forbidden City decrying their preservation work as "crimes against the people," an article in the official China Daily reported last March. Beijing maintains, nevertheless, that after Taiwan and China are again unified as a single country, Taipei should return the Forbidden City treasures. "The treasures now kept in Taipei belong to the Chinese nation, and it is compatible with past practice that they should be returned to the place where they were formerly kept," said Mr. Fang in an interview.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.