TAIPEI – Japan will host two exhibits of more than 200 artifacts from Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, regarded by many as having the foremost collection of Chinese antiquities in the world.
The exhibits, which will run from June until November, will be the first of their kind in Japan since the museum settled in suburban Taipei 49 years ago.
National Palace Museum collections have only been allowed to leave the country four other times in recent memory, and then only after destination countries — the United States, France, Germany and Austria — enacted special laws to guarantee the safe return of artifacts to Taiwan.
Japan passed such a law in March 2011, addressing Taiwan’s concerns that China might seek to have the artifacts impounded.
China, which views Taiwan as part of its territory, claims the museum treasures were stolen by the Kuomintang (KMT) during the Chinese Civil War.
A majority of the objects housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei do come from the Forbidden City in Beijing — the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties — which became a museum in 1925 to thwart any restoration of the monarchy.
Beginning in 1933, the cultural relics were moved out of the Forbidden City to protect them from harm as China descended into war. The collection then began a 16-year odyssey, first south, then to western China.
After the war, some of the antiquities returned to Beijing and Nanjing, while others ended up in Taiwan along with the KMT after it lost the mainland to the Communists in 1949.
After their arrival in Taiwan, the imperial treasures were stored first in a sugar refinery and then a mountain cave in central Taiwan while the government made plans for a permanent facility for storage and viewing.
The construction of the Taipei museum began in 1964 and it was opened to the public in November 1965.
As anyone who has visited the National Palace Museum will attest, its holdings are nothing short of astonishing.
Assembled by various Chinese emperors over several centuries, the original collection totaled 470,000 items, a number which has grown to 690,000 through museum purchases and gifts from collectors.
The antiquities include paintings, drawings, calligraphy, ceramics, bronze ware, seals, lacquerware, jade, enamels and ancient books and scrolls.
Among the most popular items are a century-old jadeite cabbage, a layered stone carved in the shape of a piece of stewed pork — a Chinese delicacy — and a bronze cauldron of the Duke Mao. Together they are the museum’s “Three Treasures.”
All pieces are stored and exhibited in climate-controlled rooms. Due to the fragile nature of the books and paintings, museum policy allows them to be on display for only 40 days, after which they are stored for at least three years.
For security reasons, the National Palace Museum regulates admission, keeping the number of visitors below 2,800 at one time.
This has become increasingly important since tourists from China began visiting the island in 2008, increasing traffic from 2.5 million annually in the early years to 4.5 million last year.
Now one of the world’s most popular museums, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is largely self-funding via ticket sales and a brisk business in replicas. Its gift shops made over 800 million New Taiwan dollars ($26 million) in revenue last year.
The jadeite cabbage and meat-shaped stone are among the artifacts selected for the exhibitions in Japan, the first time either object will have been exhibited outside Taiwan.
The exhibitions will be held at the Tokyo National Museum from next Tuesday to Sept. 15 and for eight weeks at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, from October to November.
The jadeite cabbage will be exhibited only at the Tokyo National Museum and the meat-shaped stone only at the Kyushu National Museum, each for two weeks.
Museum Director Fung Ming-chu said in an interview she “categorically declined” Japan’s request to borrow two of the museum’s most popular artifacts but was eventually “moved by their sincerity.”
The process of staging the exhibitions has been a long one. Japan first expressed interest in 1961, but it was not until 2012 the Tokyo National Museum made an official request.
Commenting on the meaning of the upcoming exhibitions to the Japanese audience, Masami Zeniya, executive director of the Tokyo National Museum, said in the invitation letter to Fung that to understand the origin of Japanese culture it is necessary to understand Chinese culture.
Japan has long been attracted to Chinese culture, which Zeniya said makes up key elements of Japanese culture.
“Without the antiquities (of the National Palace Museum in Taipei), it is difficult to understand the long-standing Chinese civilization,” he said.
The museum will also send four 12th-century Ju kiln porcelain objects. Ju ware is famous for a green-tinged blue that has a faint sparkle, a technique that has long been lost. Fewer than 70 porcelain artifacts made by the Ju kiln remain in the world today and the museum has 21.
Under the conditions of the loan, Japan must address the museum by its official title, send an official invitation to request the loan, and pass a law addressing Taiwan’s concerns about the return of the loaned objects.
In return, the Tokyo National Museum and Kyushu National Museum will lend 150 of their most prized artifacts, including 68 national treasures and important cultural properties, for an exhibition at the Taiwan museum’s southern branch in Chiayi from October 2016 to January 2017.