You can't accuse Beijing of nursing a grudge. Diplomatically overlooking the fact that Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek took 2,972 crates of the very finest imperial treasures with him when he fled the mainland to Taiwan in 1949 priceless items that have never been returned the People's Republic has shipped another exquisite cull of artwork to the island. There are just 37 pieces this time (comprising Qing dynasty paintings, vases, seals and other artifacts), and they are strictly on loan from Beijing's Palace Museum. But the gesture is unprecedented, emotionally charged and heralded as one of the fruits of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou's conciliatory cross-strait policy.
The loaned pieces are featured in the exhibition "Harmony and Integrity: The Yongzheng Emperor and His Times," and are on show at Taipei's National Palace Museum, www.npm.gov.tw, until Jan. 10, together with two pieces from the Shanghai Museum and 207 from the Taiwan vaults. While one doesn't want to read too much into it, the title's emphasis on unity will resonate with many, and Beijing's decision to have made this particular show the first to which it has lent pieces is probably no accident. Much of the lavish artwork produced under the Qing incorporated the varying artistic traditions of China's multicultural state, because the dynasty's Manchu rulers were hyper-conscious of their position as an ethnic minority and aware of the need to present a unified notion of what it meant to be Chinese. Emperor Yongzheng himself liked to be depicted in the garb of different ethnicities. There are portraits of him as a Tibetan lama, a Han scholar, in the clothing of Muslim minorities and even wearing a loose interpretation of European dress.
In that sense, many of the exhibits are exquisitely rendered lessons in national unity. On another, purely aesthetic level, they are a sensation. Yongzheng's reign, from 1723 to 1735, represents one of the highest watermarks of Chinese imperial taste. The exhibition includes snuff bottles, superb vases, translucent agate tableware, elegant copperware and one-off items like a black lacquer hand warmer adorned with a painted landscape, or a copper stand for holding imperial crowns. But most gratifying of all is the fact that these treasures are finally being shared, and not being fought over in a civil war.