by Lorand Laskai

Photo Credit: peellden/WikiCommons/CC

LAST WEEK, A RARE ROW arose between Taiwan and Japan over the Jadeite Cabbage. The artifact, originally crafted for one of the Qing emperor Guangxu’s notable concubines, is a prized possession and tourist favorite at the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) in Taipei. The cabbage found itself amidst a tense diplomatic row when it appeared upon a poster in Japan advertising an overseas exhibition of the Palace Museum (宮博物院). The problem was the exclusion of “national” (國立), which rendered the museum indistinguishable from its Beijing counterpart (also called the Palace Museum), and appeared as an act of denigrating Taiwan’s national dignity.

Despite the fact that Japanese museum officials vowed to rectify the misspelling and suggested it was a simple mistake, Taiwanese museum officials quickly threatened to cancel the exhibition, and President Ma Ying-jeou responded with strong words of criticism. As a sign of general escalation, Ma and the Kuomintang (KMT) soon after dredged old wounds from the past, instructing proper government agencies to arrange a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Republic of China’s victory over imperial Japan, while calling for greater attention to the role of “comfort women” under Japanese occupation. [1]

Such was the far-reaching repercussions of an overseas museum exhibitions and a cabbage.

The National Palace Museum itself is a prime example of the vagrancies of history. During the final stage of the Chinese Civil War, Chang Kai-shek and his ilk loaded up the very best of the Forbidden City’s collection of Chinese cultural heritage, and shipped them off to Taiwan for safe keeping. As the KMT’s stay on the island lingered into permanence, the National Palace Museum was constructed as a showcase for these treasures so that the KMT could tout its legitimacy as the rightful heir to China’s cultural heritage.

Yet such legitimacy, though easily brandished at home, has always been tenuous abroad. Indeed, overseas exhibitions of the National Palace Museum are risky business, as the risk of seizure by a host country looking to curry favor with Beijing is very real. There thus have only been four prior overseas exhibitions in the museum’s history.

It would seem as an unfortunately eventuality of these circumstances that the fifth overseas exhibition, in Japan, turned into a vicious diplomatic misunderstanding—that is, if the whole spat from beginning to end was not a crafted illusion of President Ma and the KMT’s web of lies.

Indeed, the museum incident and tensing of relations between Japan and Taiwan stands in strange discord with recent developments. In April of last year, Taiwan and Japan reached an agreement over a long-standing commercial dispute over fishing rights around disputed islands. The agreement was generously in Taiwan’s favor and bestowed the island with international legitimacy, since it showed Taiwan capable of rationally resolving island disputes, unlike its Mainland counterpart. Meanwhile, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has vocally promoted the idea of a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act, the American law that allows for special extra-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which would set the groundwork for strengthened Japan-Taiwan ties. Add to this favorable concatenation the fact that the Japanese parliament also passed a special bill in 2011 prohibiting the seizure of National Palace Museum artifacts–thus allowing for this most recent overseas exhibit–and we see, in a sea of nations indifferent to Taiwan’s plight internationally, Japan is a rare friend.

The KMT’s outrage is further rendered suspect by virtue of what transpired simultaneous to the palace museum incident. In the days before the Ma administration made it first vocal complaints, Zhang Zhijun, the head of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office and first government minister to visit Taiwan since the civil war, paraded around the island on a goodwill tour, which was met with little reciprocal goodwill on the part of local Taiwanese, and was ultimately cut short because of protest.

Given the CCP’s continued claim of suzerainty over Taiwan and denial of Taiwanese sovereignty, not to mention its asserted right to retake this supposedly rebelling province by means of force, what matter is a simple typo on a Japanese poster? Such lays bear the KMT’s outrage for what it is—an absurd illusion. Absurdities that persists in spite of their, well, absurdity do so only because of their tenable relation to ‘truth’—which is to say, more concretely, that the absurdity of the National Palace Museum incident only stands in relation to rationality because it meshes with the KMT’s discourse of ‘One China,’ which has long been a noose around Taiwan’s neck as it’s dragged towards reintegration.

As Foucault wrote on truth and discourse,

Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Power/Knowledge, 131).

The KMT’s ‘regime of truth’ is founded upon the supposition that the R.O.C. is a sovereign entity but that its sovereignty lies not in Taiwan, the island and polity, but in the abstraction of ‘China’ (中國民族). That abstraction renders it permissible for Chinese officials to trample on the island’s right to self-determination, while the KMT pounces on Japanese officials amiable to Taiwanese interest that stumble into a semantic imbroglio.

In fact, the KMT’s regime of truth not only allows but necessitates this latter indignation. For hidden under the discourse of ‘One China’ is a simple fact: the KMT does not represent the interest of Taiwanese, but rather serves an abstraction found in the annals of its party history. Obscuring this truth requires maintaining the illusion of equal negotiation status between China and Taiwan, and that any future reintegration will be equally decided by both partners.

Much like Marx’s conception of the market place (i.e. an imagined space where labor and capital stand on equal footing, in spite of the actual power asymmetry that shrouds the actual oppression of labor), the KMT seeks to maintain a discourse of illusionary equality and draw attention from the grim reality. This requires countering events like the palace museum incident in Japan–that is, any symbol with the potential to chip away at the R.O.C.’s supposed status of equality–with vigilant force.

Failure to do so draws attention to Taiwan for what it is: an island denied sovereignty that is slowly being subsumed by superior Chinese economic and political power which has infiltrated the island’s business and media. It draws attention to an alternative discourse, one most recently harnessed by the Sunflower movement, where Taiwan exists outside the illusion: that is, where Taiwan exists in a state of exigent danger. It draws attention to trade statistics and the military force that lies across the strait, which points to the absence of free-will and thus makes the case of radical resistance.

It is good reason, then, that Ma has attempted to draw Taiwan’s attention to an innocuous cabbage.

[1] Without discrediting the plight of the estimated 2,000 women in Taiwan that were forced to play the role of ‘comfort women’ under Japanese occupation, it is important to highlight the ways in which President Ma’s invocation of this historical memory creates an instrumental narrative that does not necessarily comport with Taiwan’s historical experience (The Japanese military took over 200,000 as ‘comfort women,’ the vast majority of which were from the Philippines, Korea and Indonesia).

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