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Former director explains why Taiwan’s National Palace Museum is unable to share world-class Chinese artifacts with the West

Jeng-Yi Lin
When Jeng-Yi Lin was director of the National Palace Museum, he made efforts to forge links with cultural institutions in different countries.

Jeng-Yi Lin used to be in charge of the world’s greatest repository of Chinese art. The National Palace Museum in Taipei is home to a massive collection of paintings, calligraphy, rare books, documents, ceramics, jade, bronze, and curio from Imperial China. As a result, it has attracted intense interest of scholars, art lovers, and tourists from around the world.

But as the museum’s director from 2016 to 2018, Lin could not lend precious Chinese artworks to western institutions, such as the Royal Ontario Museum, due to legal restrictions in Taiwan. The government requires that anyone who displays these treasures adhere to the Law of Guaranteed Return. And this must be a nation-to-nation agreement between Taiwan and the host country.

In an interview in Mandarin, Lin said that the Royal Ontario Museum and other prestigious institutions, including the Louvre in Paris, have wanted to conduct exchanges with the National Palace Museum. But staff at the Taipei institution could not facilitate this while he was director. (Toronto Spark associate editor becky tu translated the interview.)

“For international exchanges, they face this challenge that if they send these things overseas, they might not make their way back to Taiwan,” Lin stated.

For decades, China’s Communist government claimed that these artifacts were looted by Chinese Nationalists who fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese Civil War. Because of western governments’ “One China” policy, public officials are reluctant to sign agreements regarding these artworks with Taiwan’s national government.

Lin, however, said most Taiwanese don’t believe that China would seize the art if it were to be displayed abroad. Beijing maintains that Taiwan already belongs to China, even though this idea is roundly rejected by residents of the island nation.

Photo by lienyuan lee
The National Palace Museum is a popular tourist destination. Photo by Lienyuan Lee.

Palace art is well-preserved in Taipei

It’s a peculiar situation. Because China refuses to respect Taiwan’s national autonomy, the Beijing government has no incentive to seize the art because they think they already own it.

“The collection of the museum has been preserved very well and organized very well for exhibitions,” Lin said. “So it’s nice that it’s there.”

When he was director of the National Palace Museum, Lin tried to push this cultural institution toward conducting more international outreach. This “publicization” policy marked a departure from its history of closed governance. But he noted that it was difficult for staff to promote his vision because of national legislation that gets in the way of this occurring.

“Human civilization and human culture have resonance globally,” Lin said. “So it should be open to not just the people in Taiwan or in the East.”

Moreover, he pointed out that many artworks from Imperial China have already made their way to western countries.

Lin will deliver a free presentation entitled Unveiling the National Palace Museum: Rediscovering Cultural Marvels at Toronto TAIWANfest on August 26 and at Vancouver TAIWANfest on September 2. While in Ontario, Lin hopes to visit senior officials at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Museum contributes to emerging Taiwanese identity

He is also former director of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts and well as former director of the National Taiwan Craft Research and Development Institute. As well, he’s former general director of the Chimei Museum. In addition, Lin is a former journalist who earned a PhD from National Taiwan Normal University’s department of fine arts.

He said that since 2000, the National Palace Museum has developed an impressive collection of art from outside of mainland China. These works include Indigenous art from Taiwan, items left over from Japanese colonization of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, and works from other parts of Asia.

This, in turn, is contributing to the evolution of Taiwanese identity.

“This collection focuses on including all these different ethnicities,” Lin said. “So essentially, what they are doing is starting from Chinese culture and moving toward Asia as a whole. It not only connects Taiwan to the world in a broader sense, but it is tied to Taiwan’s local culture and history as well.”

TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest will each present Unveiling the National Palace Museum: Rediscovering Cultural Marvels with Jeng-Yi Lin. The Toronto event will occur at 4:30 p.m. on August 26 at the Lookout.

The Vancouver Public Library is partnering with Vancouver TAIWANfest on Jeng-Yi Lin’s presentation. It will take place at 11 a.m. on September 2 in the Montalbano Family Theatre at the VPL central branch.

Learn more about arts and culture on the Toronto Spark website.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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