As Henry James never tired of noting, the real thing turns up rarely, in unpredictable places and unexpected guises. I have now encountered it and, marvellous to relate, stamped on it are the words most redolent of the cheap and gimcrack, ‘Made in Taiwan’. Just north of Taipei is the National Palace Museum of the Republic of China, as Taiwan officially calls itself, one of the four great museums of the world. It is certainly the least known and least visited of the four, but far and away the most magical, for in room after room are the finest treasures of five thousand years of Chinese history, ranging from the oracle bones used by advisers to the earliest rulers to the hairpins and fingernail guards of the courtiers who served the last emperors.

Chinese palace museums date back at least as far as the 11th century – fairly recent history according to local students, who have a very different sense of time from their Western counterparts – but it was only after the collapse of the Ching dynasty that a public museum was opened, in Beijing in 1925, revealing the amazing collection of porcelain, books, paintings, jade, bronzes, ivory, precious stones and jewellery, toys, calligraphy, snuff boxes, lacquer and cloisonné objects, and much besides, hoarded by successive emperors.

After the Japanese invasion in 1931, the best of the collection was put into 15,000 cases and shipped from Beijing to the apparent safety of Nanjing. But the Japanese pressed south further and more quickly than had been anticipated and just before they entered Nanjing the collection was moved by road and rail, through crowds of refugees, to the far west of China, where it was kept for 15 years in caves, temples and warehouses. Returned to Nanjing after the war, it was soon on the move again as Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists retreated before the People’s liberation Army. Again, the best of the collection was selected, put into five thousand cases, loaded onto ships in the middle of the night, a process which took three weeks, and shipped secretly to Taiwan, where, in 1965, the National Palace Museum was opened as its permanent home – permanent, that is, until the reconquest of the mainland, when it can go back to its original setting in Beijing. Until then, or until the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regains Taiwan, visitors to the Forbidden City are doomed to disappointment. They can see the buildings which once housed the treasures, but the contents are far away in Taipei.

Unsurprisingly, the born-again defenders of Chinese culture who rule the PRC call the transfer of the collection an act of piracy, and the man who masterminded it, Han Lih-wu, a war criminal: but one of the questions which goes through your mind as you wander through the Museum’s galleries is what would have happened if it had been housed in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. More than 65,000 pieces, including four thousand paintings, made their way to Taiwan: imagine the righteous pleasure their destruction would have given to the Red Guards. Perhaps Zhou Enlai would have saved them, as he is rumoured to have saved the Forbidden City itself, but no one would want to lay good odds on that, just as no one can believe that a reluctance to damage the collection, or to kill fellow Chinese, will prevent PRC missiles falling one day on Taipei.

Recently, in another museum in Taipei, as one of an increasing number of cultural exchanges between the ROC and the PRC, there was an exhibition of the only surviving pieces from the hundreds of items of Ming imperial porcelain that were deliberately smashed and hidden in Jingdezhen in the 15th century because they were either not good enough for the court’s use or were excess to requirements. The recently-excavated pieces have been carefully reassembled, as far as is possible, but with obvious cracks and gaps. Thirty years ago, the Communists were destroying their country’s past: now they are painstakingly gluing it back together. But, after all their efforts, they are left only with the factory rejects, while the real thing sits in the National Palace Museum. Enter one gallery and there are four large, flawless Ming vases; there is not another room like it in the world.

Something else made in Taiwan is the first ever Chinese democracy, and again it is the real thing, not the ersatz version a British Government tried belatedly to introduce into Hong Kong. Twelve years ago, Taiwan was under martial law, ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT) with an iron hand. Even to say Taiwan should be independent was a treasonable offence. There were no opposition parties, travel was limited, the media centrally controlled. The transformation could hardly be more complete, for this is now a country whose citizens can say and read what they like, be what they choose to be, and worship in any way they wish. There are no political prisoners, no foreign troops based here, and the Armed Forces have no more power than they do in Britain or the US. The police are a source of jokes. In a recent shoot-out with Taiwan’s most-wanted, a gang of kidnappers, murderers and rapists, they are said to have fired off a thousand rounds without preventing the criminals from making their escape. To the Minister of Justice’s comment that he was now asking them to shoot to kill, most people’s response was that asking them to shoot to miss might have a better result.

Taiwanese democracy is as tough as any of the Western varieties, giving the lie to the old cliché that democracy and Chinese culture are incompatible. The main opposition, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), is now so strong, and winning so many seats in local and municipal elections, that it seems likely that there will be a change of government at the next election in less than two years’ time. The smart money is on the mayor of Taipei, Chen Shui Bian, becoming the next head of sate, a prospect which alarms the Americans almost as much as it does the PRC. The US should end major arms sales to Taiwan if the DPP continues to call for independence, Doug Paal, a former US National Security Council aide, wrote in a recent issue of Defense News.

Independence, the founding policy of the DPP, is a complex issue, since its declaration would guarantee a PRC attack on the island. Until a few years ago, both sides went along with the fiction that Taiwan and the mainland are one. The KMT, regarding the Communist rulers as temporary usurpers, fantasised about a restored Nationalist government in Beijing, while the mainland called, and continues to call, Taiwan a renegade province which needs to be wooed or forced back into the fold. The one-country, two-systems model, sold to Mrs Thatcher for the future of Hong Kong, was actually part of the wooing process, aimed at securing the much greater prize of Taiwan. But the Taiwanese know that whatever Beijing gets its hands on it ruins, and they have been turning in droves to a party which promises never to capitulate. Hence the Chinese missile ‘tests’ of a couple of years ago, which led to US carriers being sent to the Straits of Taiwan. The Taiwanese response has been to vote even more emphatically for the DPP.

If the missiles ever do fall on Taipei and the National Palace Museum, you can be sure that, for all its claims to be pursuing an ethically directed foreign policy, our New Labour Government will not do much about it. Like most of the rest of the world, we still prefer Beijing to Taipei. The latest country to do the Murdoch kow-tow and cut its diplomatic ties with Taiwan was South Africa, late last year. Nelson Mandela, like Robin Cook, knows, or thinks he knows, that the huge potential market of the PRC is more important than human rights.

You might expect that such hypocrisy would depress the Taiwanese, but not a bit of it. Used to living on the edge of the world’s disdain, they do an excellent job of bearing out the maxim that he travels fast who travels alone. Recent events in this part of the world testify to their resilience. The one Asian tiger which has not lost its teeth – it actually has one more since the arrival, along with much pomp and ceremony, of one of the Buddha’s surviving three teeth – it is beginning to make a quiet case for its indispensability by pumping millions of dollars back into the region to help redevelopment. Taiwan is estimated to have committed $3 billion for regional investment, a sum three times that which the PRC gave to the IMF when the crisis began. Taiwan’s GNP, per head of population, is 17 times greater than that of the PRC, and in spite of the Government’s attempts to dissuade its businessmen from investing on the mainland, some $30 billion of Taiwanese investment is helping keep the PRC’s head above water.

As for the future, ask a Taiwanese what their relationship to the mainland should be and you get a bewildering set of responses, generated by the complex recent history of the island. To the native Taiwanese, some of aboriginal stock, who came across centuries ago, you have to add others, of Chinese extraction, who have been here for some four, five, six or more generations, as well as the Chinese who came across with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. It is this mixture which makes the issue of national identity so complicated. Some have memories, fond and not so fond, of Japan’s occupation of the island. The last emperor ceded it in 1895, making it Japan’s first, and probably its best-run, colony. One of my Taiwanese friends, an engineer and DPP supporter, argues persuasively that the island’s economic miracle has been based almost entirely on a Japanese blueprint. When the KMT came over in 1947 they simply took up existing Japanese plans for urban, transport and industrial development and followed them for the next twenty years. And since there had been strong resistance to Japanese rule, the resisters actually declaring Asia’s first republic before the Japanese brutally put them down, the supporters of the DPP and of independence can point to the mainland’s betrayal of the island a hundred years ago.

Still, many who live here have their hearts and much of their family firmly rooted in the mainland, so that, for example, geography lessons in schools have become a political issue. Until very recently children learned in loving detail the names of Chinese rivers, lakes and mountains, and knew nothing about their own surroundings, which probably explains the fascinating ugliness of Taipei (a visitor from Manchester feels very much at home). If you are only living in a place temporarily, you do not make much of an effort to tart it up. But now, under Mayor Chen, it is beginning to look good in parts; and the geography taught in Taipei’s schools is the geography of Taiwan. This has led to much suspicion among KMT supporters that an independence agenda is taking over in a country which, in the words of one commentator, is ‘full of statues to people who either never lived here, or did so grudgingly’.

At the moment, the message seems to be that the DPP will not seek outright independence. As the reality of power approaches, so a greater sense of responsibility has taken hold; and Chen himself recently visited the US to explain exactly what a DPP government’s mainland policy would probably look like. Very much like the present KMT Government’s is most people’s judgment; not out of cynicism, but because there is not really much choice. The difference will be, as in Taipei, that the whole island will start to take a pride in its achievements. The National Palace Museum is an obvious place to be proud of, not only for the quality of its collection but for the exemplary way in which it is preserved and presented, making the cash-strapped British Museum and the user-hostile Louvre seem shoddy.

Not long ago, talks between the PRC and ROC were renewed after a gap of several years. On the same day, in Taipei the air-raid sirens sounded, the streets went silent, and we all made our way down into the shelters as fighters flew low overhead. It was only an exercise, however, not yet the real thing.

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