Page last updated at 23:37 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 00:37 UK

Historic 'reunion' of Chinese art

By Cindy Sui
BBC News, Taipei

Visitors look at a portrait of Emperor Yongzheng
Emperor Yongzheng was known for his strong artistic sense

In a further sign of improving relations between Beijing and Taiwan, rarely seen artworks from mainland China's Palace Museum have gone on display in Taipei in the two sides' first joint museum exhibition.

The three-month exhibition at Taiwan's National Palace Museum features 37 items borrowed from Beijing - the first time any artwork from the centuries-old Chinese emperors' collection has been loaned to Taiwan.

These items - including paintings, lacquer boxes and porcelain which belonged to the 18th Century Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng - are being displayed with some 200 exhibits from Taiwan's collection.

The exhibition is particularly significant because of the historic tensions between Taiwan and China over their shared history.

Toward the end of China's civil war in 1949, around 650,000 pieces of Chinese calligraphy, porcelain, bronzes, paintings and other art collected by emperors spanning several thousand years of Chinese history were packed in crates and shipped to Taiwan by the retreating Nationalists, who did not want the priceless cultural heritage to fall in the hands of the communists.

China has previously said the art was stolen and should be returned to Beijing.

Taiwan argues it has saved the items from being destroyed during China's tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

Another 1.5 million items of ancient art - most of which have been collected by emperors - remain in China, stored mostly at Beijing's Palace Museum.

Must-see attraction

The Taipei exhibition was made possible because relations between the two sides have dramatically improved since Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008.

Lacquer box with painted gold decor and false wrapper. Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), Qing dynasty. Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing
Lacquer box with painted gold decor and false wrapper. Yongzheng reign (1723-1735), Qing dynasty

He has focused on reducing tensions, strengthening economic ties and expanding cultural exchanges with China.

"Not discussing politics was what enabled us to put together this exhibition in just seven months," Chou Kung-shin, director of Taiwan's National Palace Museum, said at a preview earlier this week.

Taipei, however, has not agreed to lend items to Beijing, for fear they will not be returned.

The two sides have yet to sign an agreement in which Beijing recognises Taiwan's ownership of its collection and promises to return borrowed items.

"They've requested we loan them some items… but we need legal protection," Mrs Chou has said.

Neither she nor Beijing Palace Museum Director Zheng Xinmiao, who is visiting Taiwan for the exhibit, wanted to comment on how long it would take before such an agreement could be reached.

Currently people in China must travel to Taiwan to see the collection - making Taipei's museum a must-see attraction for Chinese tourists.

'New appreciation'

Meanwhile, the "Harmony and Integrity: Emperor Yongzheng and His Times" exhibition reveals something little publicised in the past: that while the Nationalists took what are considered the best in the emperors' treasure troves, hundreds of thousands of items left behind were also significant in their artistic and historical value.

A small doll on the dislpay at the exhibition
Much of Beijing's collection has not been displayed before

For instance, besides hard-to-pack-and-ship emperors' furniture, also left behind were many paintings of the Emperor Yongzheng in his leisure life.

Some of these - including one of the Son of Heaven dressed casually warming his feet by a pot of fire while reading - show a leisure side of Chinese emperors rarely seen before.

"Art is seen differently in different times. At that time, the Nationalists might not have thought to take such paintings, but nowadays, we have new appreciation for them because they help us understand different sides of the emperor," Mrs Chou said.

Also set to wow exhibit patrons is a large painting from the Beijing collection that shows Yongzheng regally outfitted in an elaborate yellow robe with blue sleeves - the colours worn for important state ceremonies.

Another rarely seen painting of Yongzheng from Beijing shows him dressed as a Tibetan lama.

Much of Beijing's collection has not been displayed before, because it lacks a proper museum. One result of improved relations is that Chinese museum curators will get to learn state-of-the-art preservation and exhibition techniques from their Taiwanese counterparts.

Chinese dream

While the Chinese media has billed the exhibition as a "reunion" of Chinese art, Taiwanese people are expected to read little political significance into it.

The mainland's view is Taiwan is a part of China, so there's no such problem of the art being 'returned' to China
Li Peisong, Beijing museum's cultural relics protection department

Instead, they will take it as a chance to see what was left behind by the Nationalists army and to learn about an emperor known for his strong artistic sense.

Mrs Chou said the Taiwan museum hopes to borrow more items from the Beijing museum in the future, with an exhibition for next year being discussed.

It would be a dream for many Chinese to see items stored in Taiwan exhibited in the mainland, Li Peisong, deputy director of the Beijing museum's cultural relics protection department, told the BBC in an earlier interview.

"It's not just the dream of Beijing Palace Museum curators, but all mainlanders. After all, only a small number of people can afford to travel to Taiwan to see them," Mr Li said. "Only then can both sides enjoy China's valuable cultural treasures and understand Chinese culture."

Mr Li added that there was a way around the touchy subject of ownership.

"The mainland's view is Taiwan is a part of China, so there's no such problem of the art being 'returned' to China," he said.

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