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“Don’t Mess With Our Cultural Patrimony!”

A tale of politically loaded Chinese treasures, angry young Taiwanese, nervous corporate sponsors, and a sudden punch in the face.

Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published to accompany the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition.

On Jan. 20., someone suffering under the misapprehension that I was an employee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hit me quite hard in the jaw. It was my last night in Taipei, and I’d gone with art-world friends for a late drink at an attractive bar near my hotel. On one side of us, some skinny young men with loosened neckties were using portable phones; on the other, two young women in chic Japanese eyeglasses giggled together. Nearby, a guy with jeans and a leather jacket was punctuating his Chinese sentences with snatches of California-style English. It was Saturday, around midnight, and we were drinking beer with salted prunes in it, as is done in Taipei. I was quietly describing my dinner that evening with Chang Lin-sheng, vice director of the National Palace Museum in Taipei; Maxwell Hearn, the Met’s curator of Asian art; Shih Chou-chien, director of art history at Taiwan University, and others.

The guy with the leather jacket, who had overheard me, walked over and leaned heavily on our table. “Don’t mess with our cultural patrimony,” he said in a tone of voice that in America is not usually associated with the phrase “cultural patrimony.” “We’re onto your tricks.” He was speaking loudly, and several people clustered around. They did not strike me as a museumgoing crowd.

“You’ll never get the Fan K’uan,” one of them taunted. “You’ll never get any of the 27. You’ll be lucky if you get a few Ch’ing bowls.” The mobile-phone users, sensing trouble, had removed themselves to the other side of the room. The young women with the eyeglasses followed.

“The conservation status of works of art is awfully technical,” I said gently. It seemed a harmless enough remark, but you could not have raised the tension more if you had advocated the subjugation of Taiwan to mainland rule.

“You Americans don’t know a thing,” a round-faced man breathed through clenched teeth. It was then that someone said, “What are you, a spy from the Metropolitan?” — and socked me in the face. A friend grabbed my arm. “Come on, someone just said you do work for the museum — there’s going to be trouble,” he said, and hurried me out into the damp night.

At dinner we had been talking about the exhibition of Chinese art from the Palace Museum that was to open at the Met in less than two months. The show was the flower of more than five years of careful negotiation and represented economic, social and cultural cooperation at the highest level.

Many museum shows require delicate international diplomacy, but this one was unusually loaded with political meaning. At a moment when the United States has been alternately currying favor with China and slapping its wrist over human rights violations, and when China is threatening to force a reunification with Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, the exhibition would remind an American audience of Taiwan’s presence and its increasing hunger for self-determination. The opening date of the Met show — this Tuesday, March 19 — would be just four days before Taiwan’s first free presidential election, which constitutes a display of freedom that has led the mainland to rattle its sabers at an increasingly deafening volume. Moreover, the show would be the greatest exhibition of Chinese art ever mounted in the West, curated to tell its entire history — a history that is Taiwan’s, not China’s, to offer because Chiang Kai-shek took all the pre-eminent monuments when he fled in 1949. The Chinese believe that the collection was stolen and should be returned to Beijing.

And so, on Jan. 3, two weeks before the art was to be packed for shipping, the protest movement began. The export of this “cultural patrimony” — whether China’s or Taiwan’s — had incensed many people on the island. By midmonth the situation had become a crisis. The question of whether the art should or would travel dominated the evening news and the front pages of Taiwanese newspapers, and became a rallying point on university campuses. Legislators and ministers, poets and painters found themselves in an unlikely alliance against the Palace Museum. It was a bizarre but telling display of Taiwan’s deep identity crisis.

No one could say whether the show, the cornerstone of the Met’s season, would be canceled. And no one could say what the protests meant for the future of Taiwan, either.

Treasures of Chinese art in the collection of the National Palace, being evacuated to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army, 1930s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Treasures of Chinese art in the collection of the National Palace, being evacuated to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army, 1930s. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Wen C. Fong, 65, came from Shanghai to Princeton as a student in 1948, and when the revolution began back home he stayed on. He is now a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton and the chairman of the Asian art department at the Metropolitan Museum. Fong, an imposing but cheerful man, is also a member of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and enjoys access to people at the highest levels — the most coveted commodity in Chinese societies. Taiwan’s art world is full of his former students, and being in Taipei with his blessing is like being in Oz with the kiss of Glinda the Good glowing on your forehead. Fong’s scholarship is sterling; his opinions rigid; his passion for Chinese art exhilarating. When, in an early meeting about the Met show, Palace Museum officials tried to withhold some paintings, Fong suggested that it might be better to do just a ceramics show. The paintings went back on the list.

Fong has made the Met’s Chinese collection first-rate, and his seminal book Beyond Representation narrates Chinese art history through that collection. He had always coveted the work in Taiwan, so when the Palace lent a few pieces to the National Gallery’s “Circa 1492” exhibition in 1992, he told Philippe de Montebello, the Met’s director, “This is our moment to strike.” Fong went to Washington to press his cause with Chin Hsiao-yi, the director of the Palace Museum.

Chin, who was Chiang Kai-shek’s amanuensis, is now extremely old and has the stiffly gracious manner of a minor deity. He and Fong have a friendship as carefully tended as a military alliance, within which the terms of the Met exhibition were negotiated. The contracts were finally signed in 1994.

Taiwan’s politics caused trouble right from the start. Even though the $6.2 million show seemed an obvious blockbuster, Mobil backed out as a potential sponsor in 1994. In August 1995, under pressure from Beijing, Citibank withdrew its sponsorship; Acer America, a subsidiary of the Taiwanese computer company, pulled out when the protests began.

Protectionism in art is not unusual. There was popular protest in Mexico against the Met’s big Mexico show, in Italy against the Vatican show, in Greece against “Greek Art of the Aegean Islands.” Nor is it unusual or unproductive for exhibitions to have diplomatic goals: the King Tut show here in 1978 helped improve perceptions of Egypt as it was easing out of its aggressive stance toward Israel. For those societies whose history transcends their modern reality, the artifacts of that history are as potent as weaponry or wealth.

In this case, there was more than internal Taiwanese politics at stake: the very tenuous United States-China-Taiwan relationship had come into play. If Taiwan can sustain order and wealth and democracy, as it seems to be doing, then it becomes an Asian model and so increases the chances for democracy in China. American support of Asian democracy does more to accomplish our foreign-relations goals in China than a thousand economic boycotts or statements about human rights. Though China’s militant Taiwan policy has many causes, hatred for that model is a major one. Being the host country for this show, then, would be the perfect cultural counterbalance to our economic support of Taiwan. So the emerging crisis over the Palace Museum show threatened to become our crisis as well.

National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Jiang. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Photo: Jiang. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is impossible to separate the history of the Palace collection from the history of China. Most of the work had political underpinnings when it was made, and it continues, amulet-like, to exert political influence today. Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, or Parliament, understanding the Met exhibition as a diplomatic matter, voted to allocate $3.1 million to help pay for it. “Since the current status of Taiwan prohibits the Government from making statements about politics to its primary ally — the U.S. — it must communicate with economics and culture,” Fong said. “Cultural communication is about to rise to the same level as economic.”

In October I attended the celebrations for the Palace Museum’s 70th anniversary, during which the best work was trotted out. The museum’s current building in Taipei opened its doors in 1965, but the Palace Museum was officially established in 1925 in Beijing under President Sun Yat-sen. The 70th anniversary was celebrated in both Taipei and Beijing; in Taipei, you felt as if you were at the Pope’s birthday dinner in Avignon.

I was with a delegation from New York that included Philippe de Montebello and Wen Fong. We were shepherded into an auditorium for lectures and then to a party. President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan, the Prime Minister and the most important legislators from the ruling party, the Kuomintang (K.M.T.), were in attendance, but there was virtually no one present from the art world. De Montebello called it “the most peculiar museum event I have ever attended.” The officials whirled around Fong; I could little have guessed then what rage against him I was to encounter.

If there were an emperor in Taiwan, he would probably choose to live in the Palace Museum. Situated on a green mountain at the northern edge of Taipei, the 1960’s hyper-Chinese building reigns over and embraces the city at its feet. A great flight of 130 marble steps leads to it, and if you lean over the carved bannister, you can take succor in the gardens below: the pools of carp, as happy as the Taoist Chuang-tzu could imagine; the pines, emblematic of the Confucian virtue of constancy; the tea-drinking pavilions, crowded with schoolchildren on field trips, and the beautiful rocks, to which young brides come daily to have their wedding portraits made.

The interior is miserable: ceilings oppressively low or pompously high, lighting hideous beyond belief, installation cases that obstruct views, wall labels stunningly uninformative. But you cannot linger on these inadequacies, because spread before you like a fool’s supper is the greatest art of China: neolithic jades, Chou drinking vessels, Sung porcelains, Ch’ing treasure boxes and, most of all, an astonishing collection of T’ang and Sung painting and calligraphy. This work, accumulated by emperors over more than 11 centuries of dynastic rule, is still called the Imperial Collection. No Western museum has such a concentration of great work, but then no Western country has a history as immense as China’s.

The Imperial Collection remained in the hands of the last emperor until he was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924. The next year, when the Palace Museum was established in Beijing, the collection, unseen by the public for a thousand years, was finally exposed. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, however, the collection was sent in 20,000 wooden crates to Shanghai for safekeeping. It later went to a new storage facility in Nanjing, and when, in 1937, Nanjing was no longer secure, the crates traveled by boat down the Yangtze, by train over the Ch’in-ling Mountains, by truck to Han-chung. Every single object, despite a James Bond-like sequence of sinking ships and blown-up buildings, made it to a safe location.

At the end of World War II the collection was returned to Nanjing, still crated. But when the Communists drew near in 1947, Chiang simply took the bulk and the best with him to Taiwan, storing it in tunnels hollowed out of the side of a mountain.

There the work stayed except for one year, starting in spring 1961, when some 200 pictures and objects — including Fan K’uan’s “Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains” and Kuo Hsi’s “Early Spring” — toured the United States as “Chinese Art Treasures,” the show that, Fong said, “single-handedly created modern Western scholarship in this field.” Four years later Chiang finally opened the doors of the new Palace Museum in Taipei. Despite having lost China’s great cities, and most of its population and land, Chiang still had one great treasure: the Imperial Collection.

People who work at the Palace Museum do not leave. They enter it young, their good doctorates barely sufficient for jobs as tour guides. They will grow old within this place, which will be the locus of their social and professional lives. Those lucky enough to become curators will have their books published by the Palace, and, directly or indirectly, their books will be about the Palace. They will be trained in the weird history of the collection and will live within the compass of the work. They will be allowed into the fabled storerooms, where at any moment 99 percent of the works lie in elegant silk boxes and carved wooden cases and great metal trunks. They will play on the Palace Museum badminton team. “It’s the last vestige of the Chinese feudal system,” one curator said.

This collection does not travel, even within Taiwan, which is why the decision to send its highlights — 475 of the most important works of Chinese art in the world — to the United States was so incendiary. Those items scheduled to go to the Met included 27 from the museum’s “restricted list” of particularly exalted pieces, which are usually displayed for only 40 days every three years.

Whereas Americans tend to think of a museum primarily as an educational institution that mounts displays for the public, the Chinese think of a museum as a storehouse that safeguards cultural treasures. Though art lovers in China enjoy looking at paintings, beauty is considered incidental to historical value. Sending Fan K’uan’s painting abroad is a bit like lending out the original of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.

The art at the Palace Museum still hangs with 18th-century attributions, despite recent scholarship suggesting that many such attributions are incorrect. “If they started reattributing paintings, they’d be accused of devaluing the collection!” one Taiwan art scholar told me. “Imagine the hysteria there would be in the Legislative Yuan if they said a certain work was not really Fan K’uan!” Instead, scholars at the Palace reattribute work in secret ways. In the Chinese tradition, important paintings hang in the autumn: if you see a Fan K’uan in spring, you know that Palace authorities believe it is not Fan K’uan. The phrase “This work is not characteristic of the artist’s style” in a label also signifies a reattribution. One of Wen Fong’s major negotiating triumphs was to be given permission to hang work at the Met with his own attributions.

Along the River During Qingming Festival (section), 12th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Along the River During Qingming Festival (section), 12th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On Jan. 2, the palace opened a preview exhibition of the works destined for New York. “We thought we should exhibit this material so that people could see it — then we would show it again on return so they could see it was the same work in good condition,” said Chang Lin-sheng, a pellucid woman who is the museum’s deputy director and the force behind Chin’s throne. The preview included everything going to the Met except the 27 items on the restricted list. A label on the wall explained that since these pieces had just been displayed for the 70th anniversary they did not need to be exhibited again now. Had this been more diplomatically phrased, it was to be pointed out, perhaps the protests wouldn’t have happened.

The restricted list has very little to do with fragility. Scrolls must be remounted every couple of hundred years, but they are otherwise stable. Rolling and unrolling, however, must be done with care. At the Palace, this service is performed mostly by old soldiers who came over with Chiang and were retired as “technicians.” There is one senior technician in particular who tends to create strain marks. (“He likes to do a final twist and hear them go ‘ieieiek,’ ” said one horrified scholar.) The restricted list includes early works that were at one point being unrolled five or six times a week for examination. In the mid-1980’s, Chin made up the restricted list to have an official excuse for refusing to accommodate visiting scholars. But the implication is that the pieces will vaporize if you breathe on them, and the wall label at the preview reinforced this perception.

On Jan. 3, as Chin escorted the Vice Director of the Legislative Yuan through the exhibition, a self-described “irate art lover” named T’ang Hsiao-li, a young woman with the sinister gleam of obsession that you see in old footage of the Red Guards, began yelling about fragility. “If director Chin had been polite to Miss T’ang, instead of ignoring her, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened,” one observer said later. “But director Chin is director Chin.”

T’ang, who felt that art too fragile to hang in the Palace Museum should not leave the country, called around town, and on Friday, Jan. 5, The China Times quoted her invitation: “Please wear black and come and sit quietly at the Palace Museum to protest fragile paintings going abroad, starting Saturday morning at 10 A.M.”

Saturday the 6th was a radiant, sunny day, and crowds gathered. (“If it had rained,” one curator said, “perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.”) T’ang had rallied most of the people who would become key players in the conflict, including several former Palace Museum employees who had left “under a cloud,” as is said there; a few people with personal grudges against Fong or Chin or both, and some genuinely concerned citizens. Chu Ko, an artist who previously worked at the Palace, wrote in The China Times, “I am absolutely astonished that these extraordinarily fragile paintings should be allowed to go.” His Palace connection gave him great credibility. Shia Yan, an oil painter, also wrote an inflammatory article — he had learned to mistrust the United States when a New York gallery dealt with him shoddily.

Estimates of the number of protesters ranged from 60 to 400; dramatic photos showed up the next day on front pages throughout Taiwan. “Lending these works of art is tantamount to betraying our ancestors,” said the poet K’uan K’uan, subsequently photographed at the base of a pillar, positioning himself for a hunger strike.

By Monday, Jan. 8, politicians had seized the stage. Chou Chuan, the whip of the opposition New Party, dropped in on Chin with a dozen reporters in tow. She also brought Chu Hui-liang, who at the time still worked at the Palace (and was the star of the badminton team), had recently earned her doctorate from Princeton (advised by Fong) and had just been elected to the Legislative Yuan. Chu suggested to Chin that he replace the originals with high-quality reproductions. “How can you, a museum-trained person, even suggest this?” asked Chin, but he got short shrift in the press.

The same day, protesters gathered outside the Control Yuan, which monitors the various branches of Government. By now the Ministry of Education had been given responsibility for the Palace matter. In the Legislative Yuan, opposition party leaders banned the 27 restricted items from export and called a public hearing for Wednesday, Jan. 10, to consider how to proceed.

James C. Y. Watt, a gentle, scholarly Hong Kong-born Chinese man who dislikes confrontation, works under Fong at the Metropolitan Museum. He had come to Taiwan to oversee the preparation of condition reports and the packing of artwork. Now he found himself in the middle of a scandal. At the public hearing in the Legislative Yuan, he was the first speaker. As he ascended to the podium, the lights of 10 television cameras blinded him, and the protesters, who had packed the building, began screaming expletives as he tried to speak. “Shameless! Shameless! You’re crazy!” they heckled. Quietly, decorously, he talked about the Met’s commitment to this art and about the value of cultural exchange. No one listened. When Watt stepped into the corridor, a reporter collided with a protester; they ended up in a fist fight from which Watt narrowly escaped. “I felt like I was stuck in an Ionesco play,” he said later.

By this time, “We had a war room in New York,” Philippe de Montebello said. He and Fong and Emily K. Rafferty, the Met’s vice president for development, stayed up most nights phoning Taiwan for news. Judith Smith, Fong’s special assistant, consolidated information and wrote up detailed daily reports. The team drafted letters to Government officials and protesters — anxious letters, conciliatory ones. Some were sent and some not. Every day Fong planned and canceled a trip to Taiwan; it was ultimately decided that his presence there would only inflame the matter. De Montebello managed to reach Chou Chuan, the New Party whip, “but she had no sympathy for our cause,” he said. “For her it had become a matter of politics, the drama to be magnified for political ends, like Helms on Mapplethorpe, a populist stance that distracted voters from the real issues of the country.”

There were also efforts at “back-room and corridor diplomacy,” de Montebello said, discussions with lower-level Yuan staff members to be reported back to the higher-ups. Every personal connection, no matter how slight, was called into play.

On Saturday, Jan. 13, protesters gathered at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. They had written slogans on strips of gauze and tied them around their foreheads, and they carried huge banners. There were politicians, including one independent presidential candidate, who suggested that the leaders of the ruling K.M.T. were exploiting their control of the Palace collection to reflect glory on themselves. There were young people to whom democracy was new, drunk on the power of their protests. And there were a surprising number of angry young men and women burning with Chinese nationalism. “We won’t grovel before the West,” said one. “We get the work 40 days every three years, and you get it for a year? And we pay half the expenses of the show?”

Aware of the growing anger, Fong declared in an open letter to the Ministry of Education that he would forfeit two of the top three paintings in the show, asking only for Kuo Hsi’s “Early Spring,” because it was on the cover of the catalogue (which had already been printed). “My grandmother or my maiden aunt would also say, to expose this is to destroy it,” Fong would later concede about the Palace collection. “But the time for such sentiments is past.” The increasingly hostile Taiwanese press quoted him as saying, quite arrogantly, that he would cancel the show if more work was withdrawn. “It wasn’t a matter of my canceling it,” Fong said later, “but of there being no show left with the cuts they’d proposed.”

In the Met’s war room, de Montebello and the others “made lists for ourselves of what we could not live without — lists not of objects but of relationships among objects,” he said. “We were willing to accept a show that was quantitatively reduced, but not one that was typologically reduced. No single major category of objects could be missing. It was necessary that the show sustain its goal of presenting a transversal history of Chinese art, that we not be forced to eliminate the T’ang, Sung or Yuan dynasties from our presentation, that the integrity of the curatorial vision be left intact. But being too pious in this matter would not have been public-spirited. It was important that we not in our disappointment cancel a remarkable show. One day I thought our chances were at 60 percent. The next day it was 30 percent.”

The museum’s press office, meanwhile, which had been organizing expensive preview trips to Taiwan and printing color brochures, moved into a state of hysteria. Interviews were forbidden, information given so much spin as to become implausible. Attempts to control journalists could hardly have been more stringent during the Cultural Revolution than they were during January and February at the Met.

At another protest, on Wednesday, Jan. 17, back in Taipei, the rumors flew: the Metropolitan Museum would lock the Chinese treasures in its basement and send back cleverly made copies; President Clinton would give the art back to the mainland. The United States Congress’s guarantee of protection for foreign cultural treasures, someone asserted, was no more reliable than the diplomatic relationship with Taiwan it had terminated in 1978. “Neither at the Met nor elsewhere in the West do you know how to treat work on paper or silk,” one anti-American protester told me. When a Chinese friend of mine countered that the Met’s studio for the conservation of Asian art operates at a much higher standard than the Palace’s, people screamed insults at him.

“This work is much too sophisticated for an American audience,” another protester told me. “People in your country couldn’t understand or appreciate it. Sending it to you is just a waste.”

The Ministry of Education formed a committee to investigate the whole fiasco. At a big rally on Thursday, Jan. 18, demonstrators wrapped themselves in a petition with 20,000 signatures gathered in a single day at Kaohsiung University. Particular rage was directed against committee members associated with Fong — though it would have been difficult to form a qualified committee free of Fong-trained scholars. Fong was still being advised to stay in New York. “You can do nothing but wait, and hope,” he was told by a friend on the committee. “I hope there will still be a show to save by next week.”

I was standing in the crowd outside the investigative committee’s first meeting when a television camera suddenly pointed at me. “I’m told you’ve actually met Wen Fong,” a journalist said. “Is he really as we understand him to be: greedy, arrogant, selfish and mean?”

Fan K'uan, Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains, 11th Century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Fan K’uan, Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains, 11th Century. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Jan. 20, when I met with Chu Hui-liang, the new New Party legislator, she was expressing regret over the debacle. “I worried about sending ‘Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains’ — I thought they were being irresponsible,” she said. “People need to know what a ‘restricted list’ actually means. But I didn’t intend that the whole show be destroyed.”

Within the high walls of the Palace there was an air of frustration and sadness. “What is wrong with these people?” asked Chang Lin-sheng of the Palace Museum, who was handling the day-to-day trauma of the protests. I had had to sneak into her office, since she was avoiding interviews; she looked tired. “Don’t they have jobs? Don’t they have anything to do all day besides march up and down out there with inaccurate slogans?” The phone rang. She talked fast for 45 minutes, her tone conciliatory and irritable. “Wen Fong,” she said when she hung up. “I told him I can’t help him anymore.” She picked up a copy of a popular magazine with “Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains” on its cover. “I suppose it’s something that now everyone in the country has heard of Fan K’uan, when recently this population couldn’t be bothered to see our 70th-anniversary exhibition. The truth is, we all worried about sending Fan K’uan. Maybe one or two others are best left here, as the Mona Lisa stays at the Louvre. But for the rest — people should see it. Most of this, of course, is politics, but now the general public — how can they be so suspicious of us? Don’t they understand how much we love that work? We’re all fragile. Should we never leave home again?”

Or, as Fong put it, “You don’t stop eating because you might choke.”

There would be a dozen more battles. The investigative committee and its subcommittees decided to reconsider every object, not just those on the restricted list. Some protesters threatened legal action against the Palace Museum.

De Montebello’s “corridor diplomacy” did not seem to be working. Neither he nor the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, our “ambassador” there, was ever able to reach the Minister of Education. To those in power in Taiwan, the strong wishes of the Metropolitan Museum were of little interest, and the Met, realizing that posturing would not protect the show, lapsed into relative silence. But Fong remained confident. “The Government had to be seen to be responsive to the people,” he explained. “So pieces would be withdrawn. But if the whole show had been canceled, the Government would have appeared to be helpless in the hands of some hysterics. It would have seemed that there was no Government policy. Such a display of weakness would have run contrary to their interests.”

Still, the Met’s situation was getting scary. The packing was already a week behind schedule, and the exhibition cases the museum had commissioned couldn’t be built because no one knew what would go in them. The reserved cargo space on the planes had been forfeited; Acer had withdrawn its $1.5 million sponsorship, and now the protesters were trying to halt the Taiwanese Government’s financing. The standard greeting in Taipei art circles was, “What news from Wen today?” But it had become clear that there was nothing that Wen Fong or anyone else in the United States could do.

By the end of January, reports of new Chinese threats to Taiwan pushed the art controversy off the front pages. On Jan. 23, the committee announced a compromise that left all sides frustrated: 23 items, including several landmark pieces, were withdrawn, and 19 other important works were restricted to 40 days of display. The Met took six of these works, and distributed the rest among the other American museums that the exhibit would visit.

The Met bravely decided to start packing without financial guarantees for one of the most expensive exhibitions in its history (although insurance and transportation costs were somewhat reduced by the exclusion ofkey priceless works). “We told the board of trustees we would be picking up the gap of $1.5 million left by the withdrawal of corporate sponsors,” said Emily Rafferty, the museum vice president. “We also said there was a possibility that the $3.1 million from Taiwan would not come through. It was a gamble — $4.6 million from our operating budget wouldn’t have closed down the museum, but it would have been devastating.” Now, “Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has begun paying,” she said. “There is nothing on paper, but I believe they will pay according to their promises.”

De Montebello asked wryly, “Whom should it make anxious to have the work here and the money not?”

So “Splendors of Imperial China” will open at the Met after all, but without 36 of its crowning splendors. Sadder even than the absence of “Early Spring” or “Travelers Amid Streams and Mountains” is that the exquisite narrative coherence and balance of the planned exhibit has been substantially undermined. It is still, however, a magnificent show, in many ways the greatest exhibition of Chinese art ever staged in the West, and the work will be displayed and lighted a thousand times better than it ever has been at the Palace. It may also be the last show of its kind: given the frenzied protectionist sentiment during January’s fracas, much of this work is not likely to leave Taiwan ever again.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, site of protests against the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Splendors of Imperial China" exhibition.

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Taipei, site of protests against the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibition.

The unrest in Taiwan was strange for two reasons. First, Taiwan is hardly anti-American. An enormous number of Taiwanese travel to, and study in, the United States. Much of the population speaks English, and, the occasional bar fight about Fan K’uan notwithstanding, as an American you tend to feel at home in Taiwan more easily than in almost any other East Asian country. Seven of Taiwan’s 17 Cabinet members hold Ph.D.’s from American universities. Taiwan is the world’s third-largest purchaser of American armaments, our eighth most important trading partner. “The educated population here is as much American as anything else,” a young artist told me.

But the second reason the protests were so surprising is more subtle and important. Taiwan has been in turmoil for a long time, and particularly in the last five years, about whether or not it is China. The “one China” policy is, in fact, the most pressing political issue of the day: will Taiwan at some point be reunited with the mainland — by force or otherwise — or will it eventually declare independence?

The official stance of mainland Communists and Taiwan’s K.M.T. is that Taiwan is a province of China; both Taipei and Beijing claim to be valid rulers of China. To the casual Western observer, the situation seems ludicrous. Taiwan has a separate economy, political system and educational system; citizens carry Taiwanese passports. But Chinese nationalism is deep-seated. Some Taiwanese like to feel that they are part of a great nation and not, as one essayist wrote, “citizens of another piddling Southeast Asian provincial hole-in-the-wall country.” To the many Taiwanese with ties to the mainland, declaring independence would be like cutting off their own arms.

Not that the mainland will countenance independence. Since President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan visited the United States in June to deliver a speech at Cornell, China has conducted ever-grander “standard military exercises” on the shores opposite Taiwan and in the sea off its northern coast. And so Taiwan, under constant threat from the mainland, must toady both across the strait and to the West. That the United States withdrew its ambassador in 1978 also provokes rage. There’s Taiwan — a peaceful democracy that the United States doesn’t recognize because we do recognize another country with a terrible human rights record, one with which we do less than half as much trade and which snubs us in its foreign and domestic policies.

Taiwan’s identity struggle fed the Palace protests. During the 70th-anniversary celebrations, I encountered more people in Taipei art circles who wanted to disavow the Palace than who praised it. Though the Palace has always attracted tourists, most locals have avoided it — because of its forbidding air, because Taiwan has long been indifferent to art and, in large part, because the museum is, according to many Taiwan intellectuals, “alienatingly Chinese.”

As Taiwan has stumbled along toward relative independence, the Chinese past has often been written off. The radical politics of the last 10 years has been about escaping China. The protests over the Palace Museum collection mirror the advent of democracy: they are about finding control where previously there was only the bulk of higher authority. So even though mainland China also objected to the artwork’s leaving Taiwan, mainland leadership could hardly have smiled upon the protests.

There also exists within Taiwan today a powerful ethnic tension between the “mainlanders” (the “1949’ers” and their progeny, about 20 percent of the population) and the “Taiwanese” (whose forebears settled there earlier). It is a strange ethnic tension, since both groups are Han Chinese. But from 1949 until the end of the brutal “Chiang Dynasty,” in 1987, the mainlanders of the K.M.T. ruled, and the Taiwanese, despite controlling much land and wealth, were treated as an underclass.

Chiang’s Government, still claiming to rule China, and filling its legislature with representatives from every mainland district, was corrupt and often evil. But in the past nine years, the country has transformed itself, with remarkable fluidity, into a functional democracy with a highly educated population (the literacy rate is more than 90 percent, which in a character-written language is astonishing), enormous national wealth (Taiwan has one of the largest per capita cash reserves in the world) and open elections. The legislature no longer tries to represent all of China.

There are now three main political parties in Taiwan: the entrenched K.M.T., the Democratic Progressive Party (the D.P.P., the primary opposition party, which overtly stands for independence) and the mainlander-heavy New Party, which advocates long-term reunification with China. There are legitimate divides among the parties, though all three tend to use exalted rhetoric about the “one China” policy to mask simple power struggles.

For the New Party, the Palace Museum protests were a triumph. Some of its members, after all, including Chou Chuan and Chu Hui-liang, helped lead the protests — which began shortly after an election in which the New Party had gained many seats, primarily at the expense of the K.M.T. And by consistently calling the Palace collection “the Chinese cultural patrimony,” New Party leaders and other protesters were able to rally the sympathy of a surprisingly large population that identified such material as key to Taiwan’s inchoate struggle for a cultural identity.

“The Palace Museum is a nice place, but it’s too Chinese and insufficiently Taiwanese,” said Chen Shih-meng, Deputy Mayor of Taipei and former Secretary General of the D.P.P. “Whether Chiang Kai-shek took that material rightfully or wrongfully, I don’t know, but we need a Taiwanese place to complement the Palace Museum. We deserve to understand ourselves as Taiwanese. I was taught that I was a part of a Chinese culture to which I never truly belonged. We must raise the consciousness of our next generation. We must help them toward cultural freedom from the mainland.”

And then, as is typical given the tense politics of Taiwan, Chen fused the topic at hand with the more essential matter of independence. “The leadership here has a clear destination for Taiwan, but says that to avoid irritating the mainland, they must speak with creative vagueness,” he said. “This vagueness, meant to confuse Beijing, confuses the people of Taiwan more than it does the enemy. If China uses military force, we will counterattack. We could destroy their economic zones incredibly fast. We will not win by pitching threats against military experts in the Chinese leadership, but if we use our military capacities to sow fear among the economists, we can divide that leadership to triumph. We must build defense capacity and make our plans clear to the mainland. Developing a native cultural awareness is a part of this policy. The Palace Museum does not enable such objectives.”

Chang Lin-sheng of the Palace Museum said of those who would advocate an autonomous Taiwanese art: “These are rootless people. Did you know that the aboriginal tribes the localists love so much have no word in their language for art?” She paused dramatically. “Democracy is not good for art,” she continued, wringing her hands and laughing. “Communism is worse. Capitalism is a good approximation of an imperial system, and is very good for art. There is no Taiwanese culture. It’s not like the racial problem in the U.S. — we are all Han people, and our culture was at its greatest in imperial courts.” The Palace Museum, she insisted, is the best answer to the Taiwanese search for dignity.

Detail from Dwelling in the Fu-ch’un Mountains (The Master Wuyong Scroll), by Huang Kung-wang (1269-1354), in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from Dwelling in the Fu-ch’un Mountains (The Master Wuyong Scroll), by Huang Kung-wang (1269-1354), in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When “Splendors of Imperial China” opens this week, the works that will be most noticeably absent are the greatest landscapes of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, which is to China what the Renaissance is to the West. But “Splendors” still has landmark Chinese paintings, including Huang Kung-wang’s long hand-scroll “Dwelling in the Fu-ch’un Mountains,” probably the greatest of Yuan paintings, created between 1347 and 1350. The Met’s original plan was for it to be only partly unrolled, but the disappearance of 36 objects will allow it to be unfurled in its 20-foot glory.

Yuan painting is somewhat harder for a Western audience to understand than Sung painting; its refinement can be mistaken for obscurity. The Yuan painters were striving for complete simplicity of style and subject, the imagination given free rein within tight confines, greatness achieved through understatement. The painter Wu Chen spoke of “flavor within blandness” when he rejected the theatricality of Sung styles.

Huang Kung-wang made his masterpiece in his old age. “One leisurely day in the south pavilion I took up my brush and wrote out this scroll to the end,” he later mused. “In my extreme exhilaration, I was not aware of time passing. . . . Three or four years later, it was still not finished. . . . Morning and evening, whenever I can catch a free moment, I put my brush to work!” In 1650 the scroll’s owner wanted to take it beyond the grave, and ordered that it be burned. It was laid on the coals, but when the dying man turned away, his nephew substituted another scroll, and so was able to save six of the seven original sheets.

James Cahill, the leading scholar in the field, has written that more than three years passed before Huang decided the scroll was finished. “The somewhat arbitrary nature of that decision is suggested by the nature of the picture,” he wrote. “It seems to be the product of a series of decisions, some of them a bit capricious, made by the painter at successive stages in the painting process, reflecting his state of mind at the moments when he made them. And yet, and paradoxically perhaps, it achieved the sense of ‘rightness’ or inherent order which the Chinese call li.” Maxwell Hearn writes in the Met’s catalogue: “Huang’s painting presents a calligraphic landscape, in which the focus shifts from the representation of reality to the hand of the artist. . . . Nature has become a metaphor for the self, and the landscape, a reflection of the artist’s inner world.”

Sung artists had risen to the peak of naturalistic representation, hiding the brush stroke by using washes; they wished to delete themselves graphically from their work. Huang’s brush strokes, like his sentiments, are everywhere apparent, as if he were writing the letters of his own heart, thoughtfully but without hesitation.

It is fashionable at the moment to speak of the failure of Western medicine to reconcile the mind-body split, and to look to the East for holistic cures. The Western division between word and image, between literary and artistic history, is no less troubling. Calligraphy is still the hardest of the Chinese arts for most Westerners to grasp: language is not metaphor but object, and what is signified is to some extent the process of signification — the writing and the content are harder to dissever than the dancer from the dance. Fong calls calligraphy a “nonerasive medium.” It can be epistolary and spontaneous, with an ink trace that is entirely expressive, or it can be formal and ritualistic.

Huai-su’s “Autobiographical Essay,” another extraordinary piece that has made it to the Met’s show, is a self-congratulatory drunken celebration in cursive forms, dated 777. In it, Huai-su explains that he writes best when drunk. As he goes on and gets drunker, the text becomes less literary, but the quality of the writing is exalted. The characters flow into one another as the brush charges forward, making fluid patterns of line — rhythmic, pulsing, almost erotic. Chao Meng-chien, writing in the 13th century, said that Huai-su “grasps his pen grandly like a frightened snake, rings it about roundly, and yet is very strangely spare.” Huai-su himself wrote: “When I see extraordinary mountains in summer clouds, I try to imitate them. Good calligraphy resembles a flock of birds darting out of the trees, or startled snakes scurrying into the grass, or cracks bursting in a shattered wall.”

The Met will also have Emperor Hui-tsung’s “Two Poems,” a fine example of his “slender gold” calligraphy. Done more than 300 years later than Huai-su’s piece, it stands in sharp contrast to it. Cahill writes, “Each of the tense, reedy strokes, faultlessly executed, takes a predetermined shape; each character, occupying its assigned space, exhibits order and stasis, as if engraved in stone.”

Hui-tsung was an incompetent Emperor, ambitious about building great public gardens and vague about running the country, but he was a glorious patron and practitioner of the arts. “Only through creativity,” he wrote, “does one’s merit remain behind.”

Catalogue from the Splendors of Imperial China exhibition.

Catalogue from the Splendors of Imperial China exhibition.

What is included in “Splendors” is the merit of Chinese emperors, which may lie more tangibly in works of calligraphy than in political achievement or military conquest. Fong’s catalogue, significantly titled “Possessing the Past,” is in some ways an embarrassment to the Met. The cover shows Kuo Hsi’s “Early Spring,” which is not in the exhibition. The copyright page thanks Acer for the corporate sponsorship it withdrew. And the text refers at some length to work that will probably never be seen again in this country, all of it illustrated in glowing color. (“Well, at least you have your book,” de Montebello told Fong when it looked like the show would miscarry.)

Still, the book is a magnificent achievement. It uses techniques of connoisseurship to narrate a 1,000-year evolution of the idea of art. With grace and clarity, it balances social and formal art histories; it explicates the force that won these Chinese masterpieces their canonical position and the force that canonical position has afforded them.

“Possessing the Past” also seems to tell over and over the story of what happened in Taiwan in January. “How much high Chinese culture is there in China?” Fong asked me one evening this winter. “It’s all Western. So much has been lost and forgotten by Chinese people in the last 150 years. What they still have is so precious, but being proud of your heritage and having the will to understand it are two different things.”

Some protesters in January spoke of the need for an exhibition in Taiwan of European art, as grand as “Splendors,” that would include everything from the Mona Lisa to “Guernica.” A Chinese audience might want to call such an exhibition “Escaping the Past.” In the West, meaning lies in where you are going; in China, in where you have been.

The Western press, when it describes the surging New Party, attributes its new power to the Taiwanese fear of the mainland. But in fact, the New Party — which advocates reunification in the distant future, or possessing the past — was founded by people who understand the world through Chinese eyes. The Taiwanese, it turns out, are more Chinese than we might have thought. The battle over the Palace Museum collection suggests that the next struggle may well be between that party and the K.M.T. over the terms of unification, and not about the sort of wide-eyed independence that has swept Eastern Europe, which so readily grips the American imagination and has brought about the current missile crisis. Like most historical art exhibitions, “Splendors of Imperial China” is about the past. More than most others, it may be about the future as well.