Taiwan museum head set for historic China trip
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Taiwan museum head set for historic China trip

When the director of Taiwan's world-renowned National Palace Museum flies off to China on Saturday, she will be crossing a chasm far wider than the 100-mile Taiwan Strait.

world Updated: Feb 13, 2009 10:07 IST

When the director of Taiwan's world-renowned National Palace Museum flies off to China on Saturday, she will be crossing a chasm far wider than the 100-mile (160-kilometer) Taiwan Strait.

Chou Kung-shin's trip to meet with officials from China's Palace Museum in Beijing comes 60 years after one of the greatest transfers of art in world history _ the removal of more than a half-million artifacts from Beijing's Forbidden City ahead of the communist takeover of the mainland.

The transfer set the stage for creating the world's greatest museum of Chinese art in Taiwan at the expense of its counterpart on the Chinese mainland, and created a dense layer of bitterness between them.

Chou sees the visit as an opportunity to narrow that gap and give added momentum to Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's effort to promote reconciliation between Taipei and Beijing. "We hope by cultural exchanges we can improve the mutual trust and cooperation across the Taiwan Strait," she told The Associated Press in an interview.

The background to her visit _ the first to the mainland by a National Palace Museum director _ is the stuff of cultural legend. In the waning stages of the Chinese civil war the soon-to-be-defeated forces of Nationalist strongman Chiang Kai-shek moved some 600,000 items of Chinese calligraphy, porcelain, bronzes, landscape paintings, portraiture and figurines from the Chinese imperial collection to Taiwan.

In the eyes of the Nationalists it was a necessary step, taken to save China's precious cultural heritage from the supposed rapaciousness of Mao Zedong's Communists.

For the Communists it was nothing less than a cosmic art theft, a final, desperate act from a discredited political gang. While most Taiwanese and Chinese believe those attitudes are gone, Chou insists that much work remains to be done before any open-ended cooperation between her institution and China's Palace Museum can begin.

A particular problem is the reported insistence of the Chinese side to change the National Palace Museum's name to the Taipei Palace Museum and avoid the contentious issue of Taiwan's sovereignty.

"They will need to acknowledge us properly by our formal name, the National Palace Museum," Chou said. "Otherwise it would be very rude."

The name issue is crucial to Taiwan-China relations. Sixty years after their split, the mainland continues to maintain that Taiwan is part of China's territory, to be united by persuasion if possible, by force if necessary.

While Ma has done much to improve relations _ decisively turning the corner on his predecessor's pro-independence policies in his only nine months in office _ tensions still persist. Taiwanese efforts to underscore the island's sovereignty _ minus its independence component _ are a particular source of friction. In her AP interview, Chou said the main purpose of her visit to Beijing was to improve cultural exchanges.

She said she would discuss borrowing several portraits of the Ching Dynasty's 18th century Yong Zheng Emperor from the Palace Museum for an October exhibition in Taipei.

But on the crucial question of lending items from the National Palace Museum to its Beijing counterpart, Chou said that would only be possible if China signs agreements to guarantee the items' safe return.

That might be difficult, because Beijing's position is that there is only one palace museum, and the National Palace collection belongs to it.

First Published: Feb 13, 2009 10:06 IST