No Island Left Behind: Cross-Strait Relations in China’s National Museums

Written by Shih Chang

Image: National Museum of China, license: public domain.

By the end of 2020, there were 5788 museums in mainland China, making it one of the top five in terms of number of museums. One reason is the rapid economic growth which has provided the capital and opportunity to develop cultural industries and institutions, including state museums on different levels. On top of the financial means, the government’s policy has also played a decisive role. Hu Jintao, the then General Secretary, announced a long-term strategy to develop and promote national culture and the development of museums as part of CCP’s cultural policy. In Museums in China: Power, Politics and Identities, Tracey Lu states that “establishing museums has become a criterion in the performance evaluation of government officials in recent years”.

In a more restrictive environment like China, museums are unlike their counterparts in the west. In addition to serving the purpose of recreation and education, they are also tools for governing and propaganda. One interesting global propaganda observed in the museums in the following sections is “Chinese unification.” Developed in the 1970s by the PRC to address the “Taiwan Issue,” the concept of Chinese unification has taken on many different forms. Some of the most known rhetoric strategies are: “Two sides belonging to one family,” “Liberating Taiwan,” and “Take Taiwan by force.” In the following sections, I will show how these strategies are played out in three significant museums. 

I. China Museum for Fujian-Taiwan Kinship(中國閩台緣博物館)

Established in 2006, the museum is a first-class national museum to reflect the historical relationship between the mainland (motherland) and Taiwan. It is the only national museum that focuses on Taiwan. It also serves as a patriotic education demonstration base directly awarded by the Central Propaganda Department and a national youth education base awarded by the Communist Youth League Central Committee.

As one of the vital research institutions on Fujian-Taiwan relations, the entire museum exhibition space is divided into four floors, with a total exhibition area of ​​7355 square meters. The main exhibition, “Fujian-Taiwan Kinship” on the second floor and the special exhibition “Fujian-Taiwan” on the third-floor feature artefacts and documents as proofs of historical and geographical facts of kinship (blood relations), cultural ties, business connections and similar ways of life (法緣相循) between Fujian and Taiwan.

The “Fujian-Taiwan Kinship” exhibition is divided into seven components and features over 1500 artefacts. For example, it features relics of the Neolithic period from both Taiwan and the mainland to stress that the two locations belong to the same “cultural circle.” In addition to the exhibition content, the museum features a Fujian-Taiwan style architectural landscape design, which uses the colour of natural stone plates and special red bricks to symbolise the “fate” and “destiny” of unification of the two straits. Furthermore, the “nine dragons pillar (九龍柱)” at the museum entrance symbolises how the compatriots on both sides of the strait are descendants of the dragon. Thus, the relationship between the two straits is perceived as solid as a rock.

Between 2004-2007, Hu Jintao stresses the importance of “a peaceful and stable development across the strait.” Thus, the museum somehow represents Hu Jintao’s “soften hostility” to achieve the goal of “peaceful unification.” 

II. 75th Anniversary of the Recovery of the Island of Taiwan Exhibition at the National Museum(金甌無缺——紀念台灣光復七十五週年主題展,中國國家博物館)

On October 25th, 2020, an exhibition commemorating the 75th anniversary of the recovery of Taiwan from Japanese colonial rule was held at the National Museum of China. The exhibition is divided into six sections that aims to show “the complete history” of the island of Taiwan from ancient to modern times. The first four sections, “Treasure Island Taiwan”, ” Common Grief of Nine States”, “Protecting Sovereignty against the Japanese Invasion “, “Long Ballad as a Sword”, objectively recreating the history of Taiwan’s return to the motherland and the development of cross-strait relations. Stressing unification as an unstoppable trend of the times. This was followed by the last two sections: “Taiwan fending of the Japanese” and “Cross-Striait Dreams”.

According to the Wang Chunfa, curator of the museum, “the exhibition is being held to review the heroic struggle of Taiwan compatriots against Japanese occupation and colonial rule in Taiwan and how people from both sides of the Taiwan Straits fought against foreign aggression and achieved a great victory. According to the exhibition’s introduction, more than 160 sets of cultural relics from the museum and more than 50 copies of important documents and archives from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) till today are on display, which strongly proves that the island of Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory” (Global Times, 2020 Oct. 7) [4].

According to the Wang Chunfa, curator of the museum, “the exhibition is being held to review the heroic struggle of Taiwan compatriots against Japanese occupation and colonial rule in Taiwan and how people from both sides of the Taiwan Straits fought against foreign aggression and achieved a great victory. According to the exhibition’s introduction, more than 160 sets of cultural relics from the museum and more than 50 copies of important documents and archives from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) till today are on display, which strongly proves that the island of Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory” (Global Times). 

The exhibition “金甌無缺” means “Complete nation,” stresses the importance of unifying Taiwan as part of a national project. Continuing the narrative of Taiwan as part of China, this exhibition focuses on Japan as a mutual enemy of “a united China” and the victory “liberating Taiwan” from the Japanese rule. By this point, the PRC has wholly disregarded the legitimacy of any ruling political party in Taiwan and continued to emphasise the island’s “return to the motherland”. The exhibition’s timing is exceptionally provocative since Japan has continued to maintain exchanges with Taiwan in private forms. Indeed, Japan has been drawing closer to Taiwan over the years. There have been instances where Japan openly supported Taiwan on economic and political issues. 

III. Diaoyu Dao Museum of China(中國釣魚島數字博物館)

Also playing havoc with East Asian regional politics is the Diaoyu Dao Museum of China. This digital museum aims to address the Diaoyu Islands dispute (or called The Senkaku Islands) dispute. This is over a group of uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Tiaoyutai Islands in the Republic of China (Taiwan).

The Diaoyu Islands Digital Museum in China was officially opened on October 3rd, 2020, just before the Republic of China (Taiwan) celebrates its national day. The Chief Cabinet Secretary of the Japanese Cabinet Katsunobu Kato (加藤勝信) expressed a solemn protest against this and requested the Chinese side to delete it through diplomatic channels. The digital museum exhibits historical pictures, films, legal documents, physical simulations, models, animated stories, news reports and scholars’ writings, etc. Furthermore, it emphasises that the Diaoyu Islands and their affiliated islands are China’s inherent territory. To help the international community to understand this fact, the English and Japanese versions have been added to the website based on the original Chinese version.

The museum sphere is militarised by the constant update from Chinese Coast Guards on the website’s front page: “The Chinese Coast Guards cruised in the territorial waters of the Diaoyu Islands on October 20th, 2021.” Thus, by bridging the rhetoric of one people (Taiwan is not an independent country) and creating a united front (and that Japan has wrongly challenged China’s territorial sovereignty), China performed an action of “re” claiming sovereignty (While in reality, the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are currently under Japanese administration, although their sovereignty is contested by both China and Taiwan).

On top of stressing Diaoyu Island as the inherent territory of China in their “Diaoyu Islands White Paper,” the PRC government is also showing its military capabilities. Words and actions have accentuated this situation to the point that it will defend its national territorial sovereignty. It will leave no island behind, not the Diaoyu Islands, and not Taiwan.

China has faced a more restrictive media environment since Xi Jinping became president in 2013. As a result, national museums, rather than being advocates for progress and societal change, serve as mediating instruments of the government. Thus, it is worth observing the relationship between the government and state-owned museums, especially how the discourse of national history is articulated and implemented, and what this means for larger regional diplomacy when museums become sites of counter-information. 

Shih Chang is a PhD Candidate in Culture Studies at the National University of Singapore with a designated emphasis on theories from Asia and Inter-Asia connections. She is working on museums and national identity in Taiwan. Her works has appeared in a range of publications including International Journal of Taiwan Studies, Curator, New Bloom, and No Man is an Island. 

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