Asia

A Visit to China's Taiwan Museum

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It's hard to miss the vast pyramid that dominates the shores of Quanzhou's West Lake. Topped with a giant disc that looks like a rocket-launching pad, fronted by a windswept open space that seems just ripe for a victory parade or ten, it's the sort of megalomaniac building project that typically speaks of world-class mayoral corruption.

It is also, as I learned after getting a lift from a tea saleswoman outside a Shaolin temple and forgetting the Chinese word for “sea”, home NOT to Quanzhou's Maritime Museum but to the city's Museum of Fujian-Taiwan Kinship. Given the sheer numbers of missiles the Chinese have pointing at Taiwan at any point in time, the title struck me as a tad optimistic, even if you can actually catch a ferry to Taiwan from Quanzhou.

To be clear, relations between China, AKA the People's Republic of China, and Taiwan, AKA the Republic of China, are as fraught as their formal names would suggest. The PRC, with the sort of intellectual flexibility which sees that foe of organised religion, Mao, actively worshipped as a god in some backwaters, manages to simultaneously count Taiwan as one of its provinces and list it as an international destination in airports.

You never know what you're going to get with Chinese museums. They're typically large: the behemoth Museum of China on Tiananmen Square is bigger than MOMA and closing on the Louvre and the Hermitage. Many Chinese provincial capitals boast science museums, with apparently compulsory exhibits on Chinese rail engineering wizardry and space technology advances, that make London's look like a village fete.

Depending on when the English signage – if there is any – was last redone, the historical tone can span the gamut from Mao era harangue through to the calming, soothing vocalisations of Radio 4. Exhibits may be arranged by Marxist theory, by Chinese dynasty, or both.

Leaving the maritime museum for another day, I joined a Sunday afternoon crowd of Quanzhouvians and made my way up many, many steps into a vast and echoing entry hall framed by four towering lifts. It would be fair to say, from the curious reactions of the security guards, that I was one of few laowai to make this particular pilgrimage.

The first exhibit, on geology, set the tone, explaining, with the help of a diorama, how Taiwan and Fujian were cut from the same geological cloth. It added, as if for bonus points, that the first ever humans on Taiwan were Fujianese, a claim that Taiwan's tiny and much-abused indigenous population might dispute.

 



I progressed. Exhibit after exhibit was devoted to Taiwanese culture, or, more specifically, how Taiwanese culture belongs to China, and in particular Fujian. Their gods? From Fujian! Their arts? From Fujian! Their marriage ceremonies? Also from Fujian! Their homewares? Entirely Fujianese, ta muchly. Tableau after tableau, diorama after diorama, all hammered to the same propaganda drumbeat: all your base are belong to us.

Or, as one of many comically similar captions explained it: “Fujian and Taiwan are of the same cultural origin as well as closely related politically and economically. To be exact, Taiwan's culture, an indispensable part of Chinese traditional culture, is directly transplanted from Fujian to an overwhelming extent.”

I looked at the families tripping through the exhibits. Does no one wonder, I thought, why they need a passport to hop on a ferry to this so-closely-related island?

At one point, the English captioning stopped. Typically, in my experience, this means that one is entering a period of history which is embarrassing to China and/or wildly distorted in Chinese historical teaching. The tableau appeared to depict Chiang Kai-Shek signing a treaty with the Japanese and founding modern Taiwan. Unfortunately, my 100-odd Chinese characters do not include the ones for “capitalist running dog”, “Imperialist warmongers” or, indeed, “collaborator”.

After perhaps a kilometre of walking and more Taiwanese / Fujianese folk art, traditional costumes and deities than anyone needs to see in an afternoon, or arguably a lifetime, the exhibit spat me back into the echoing entrance hall. It was difficult to understand what further explanation could possibly be delivered, let alone required, in the additional six to eight floors construction had allowed, and indeed, the lifts, while numbered to the third floor, would only ascend to the first.

In years of travel, I have extricated myself from many appalling gift shops. But the sorry selection of beads, hair clips and folk dolls that occupied portions of the first floor made the average Egyptian stuffed camel, scarab and plastic pyramid emporium look like Selfridges.

Through the picture window, a giant rock water feature, bereft of water, dripped a quiet rain. Outside on the parade ground, all ready for the future unification ceremony, small children splashed in puddles. As I headed back to base, I could only wonder whether there were ever equivalent museums in Taiwan.

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Published by Stuart Lodge

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