Chinese treasures lure tourists to Taiwan

Taiwan | The National Palace Museum contains the best artifacts from China’s long history
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 2/07/15, 08:35 am

TAIPEI, Taiwan—Long rows of tour buses line both sides of the main street leading to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan’s capital. Tourists from China, some wearing tour group-issued matching hats, clump together in the courtyard leading to the palatial museum building, snapping photos and snacking. Inside, tour guides raise small flags or stuffed animals keychains dangling from sticks to distinguish themselves from the masses crowding the lobby.

“Come take a picture of me,” a middle-aged man urged his friend as he posed by an iron vessel outside the main building. “Be sure to get the words ‘Republic of China’ in it!”

The National Palace Museum, which holds one of the largest collections of Chinese art and artifacts, is one of two mandatory stops for the millions of Chinese tourists who have visited Taiwan since 2008, when the government allowed direct flights across the strait between the two countries. The other is the towering Taipei 101—which for six years held the title of tallest building in the world—filled with high-end stores such as Gucci, Chanel, and De Beers.

As the Lunar New Year holiday approaches, many more Chinese travelers will fly to Taiwan, an increasingly popular vacation spot as last year’s Occupy protests in Hong Kong deterred tourists from the former British Colony. The new wealthy class in China is coming—and spending its money—in hordes: In 2013, 2.87 million Chinese tourists visited the island, bringing in $5.5 billion. Last year, that number jumped 39 percent to nearly 4 million.

In spite of the economic boon, local residents regularly lament that the tourists are loud, rude, and crowd popular sites. Television news programs highlight stories of tourists carving their names in historic sites, littering in national parks, or starting fights. A number of locals discouraged me from visiting the major night markets, shopping centers, or museums with one refrain: Too many Chinese tourists.

At the National Palace Museum, tensions are rooted deeper in history. The 696,000 pieces in its permanent collection are some of the highest quality Chinese artifacts, dating back 10,000 years to the Neolithic age. At any time, only 3,000 pieces are shown: delicately carved concentric ivory spheres, faded paintings on silk scrolls, sprawling Chinese calligraphy from the Chin dynasty (275-420 A.D.)

Originally part of the Chinese emperor’s collection, the pieces were displayed in Beijing’s Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in 1925 after the overthrow of the last emperor. When the Japanese invaded China in 1931, General Chiang Kai-shek ordered the museum to move the precious artifacts south, and the collection travelled to various cities like Shanghai and Nanjing for safekeeping. Once the war ended, the Chinese Nationalists started fighting the Communists, and Chiang sent 3,000 crates of the highest quality artifacts, about 22 percent of the collection,  to Taiwan. The defeated Nationalists eventually escaped to Taiwan and built their own National Palace Museum in the 1960s to house the treasures.

While some in China want the artifacts returned to Beijing, Taiwanese officials claim holding onto the collection helped preserve it during China’s Cultural Revolution in 1979, when many historical sites, temples, and churches were desecrated and their contents destroyed. Beijing’s Palace Museum was only spared because Premier Zhou Enlai sent an army battalion to guard the Forbidden City.

In signs of warming relations between the countries, Beijing lent Taiwan’s museum 29 treasures in 2009 for an exhibit on Qing Dynasty Emperor Yongzheng, then collaborated again in 2013 by loaning 45 artifacts. Taiwan has not lent China any of its art, fearful it won’t be returned.

On a recent Saturday morning, the Palace Museum was bustling. By the entrance, followers of Falun Gong, a religious group banned in China, lined up bright posters and blared through loudspeakers details of the persecution they face at the hands of the Chinese government. A group of practitioners in matching robes silently meditated, while tourist largely ignored them.

The longest line in the building wound around the museum’s crown jewel, a piece of jadeite immaculately carved into the shape of a Chinese cabbage with small insects on its leaf. Nearby gift shops sell miniature replicas of the cabbage, famous for its incorporation of the jade’s natural green and white coloring. Tour guides explained the history of the sculpture while waiting in line, as middle-aged women with tight perms pushed their way ahead, jostling for a glimpse. A museum attendant waved people along at a brisk pace. After the long wait and hubbub surrounding the piece, the cabbage seemed smaller than many expected. In front of me, a Chinese woman turned to her husband and asked bluntly, “That’s it?”

But for most, the visit seemed to inspire awe at China’s long and rich history. An old man from Shanghai pushed his grandson in a stroller as he gazed at a gold buddha statue from the Tang Dynasty.

“Ah, look at all our treasures that they’ve taken and brought over here,” he exclaimed with a sigh.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.


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