Ian Johnson

Former Beijing correspondent Ian Johnson looks at the treasure of the Forbidden City, now in Taipei’s National Palace Museum, and how China changed its view over de past decades on those thefts, now almost 75 years ago, under current geopolitical tension, for the Art Newspaper.

The Art Newspaper:

“The PRC was founded as a revolutionary state bent on destroying the past, which it saw as having dragged down China,” says Ian Johnson, a reporter on China for publications including the New York Times, formerly based in Beijing. “But in recent decades the Communist Party has redefined its mission to become protectors of China’s cultural past. So it now sees the treasures in Taiwan’s Palace Museum as its cultural heritage—never mind that many of those treasures might well have been destroyed if they had stayed in China during the first decades of Communist rule.”

For the governments of Taiwan and China, these artefacts represent an important record of their past. But they are a also a symbol of their political status at a time when Taiwan’s independence hangs in the balance…

“The museum was designed by the KMT as a way of showing that Taiwan is the ‘better China’—the one that respected traditions and didn’t destroy them, and the one that looked after the country’s cultural patrimony and didn’t allow zealots to destroy it, which happened during the first decades of Communist rule,” Johnson says…

“Nowadays, the museum has a more complex role,” Johnson says. “Many people, especially young Taiwanese, identify more with other island nations, such as Japan, the Philippines or Indonesia, rather than with the lumbering, authoritarian People’s Republic of China. For them, these treasures aren’t really about their culture, but instead represent a link that is no longer that strong. To them, the Palace Museum is something from yesterday.”…

As Taiwan’s national identity continues to mutate, the collection remains a reminder of how China’s civil war continues to be waged across the strait. The repercussions of this continue to reverberate through the museum. “According to the Communist Party, Taiwan is part of China. Thus, the artefacts are already in China,” Johnson says.

More in the Art Newspaper.

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