Controversial Loan of Treasured Calligraphy Sparks Outrage in China

For Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, lending rare Chinese calligraphy to Japan seemed nothing more than a straightforward cultural exchange when they agreed on the collaboration with the Tokyo National Museum. Both parties did not expect the loan would arouse widespread anger in Taiwan and China.

Unrivalled Calligraphy: Yan Zhengqing and His Legacy exhibition is now held in Tokyo

Yan Zhenqing's Requiem to My Nephew is considered a national treausre to the Chinese

The calligraphy, titled Requiem to My Nephew, is one of the premier examples from the hand of the Tang Dynasty calligrapher Yan Zhenqing (709 - 785), also one of the greatest calligraphers in China.

The artwork is now being displayed in the Tokyo National Museum

The artwork is now being displayed in the Tokyo National Museum as part of an exhibition titled Unrivalled Calligraphy: Yan Zhengqing and His Legacy.

The artwork had been kept in China for centuries until the 1940s when Chinese Nationalists, along with the artwork and other Chinese antiquities, retreated to Taiwan after the Communist gained control of mainland China.

Yan Zhenqing's Requiem to My Nephew

It has been kept in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum since then. It is one of the 70 precious relics in the museum that are subjected to strict display restrictions due to their vulnerability. This is only the second time the work has been loaned overseas. The previous loan was made in 1997 to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Yan Zhenqing's Requiem to My Nephew

Requiem to My Nephew is infused with tremendous grief and agony. When the An Shi Rebellion started in 755, rebel forces invaded Changshan. Yan Zhenqing’s cousin Yan Gaoqing, who was serving as magistrate of the area and fighting the rebels in the frontline, refused to surrender. Infuriated by his refusal, the general An Lushan killed Yan Gaoqing and his son, Yan Jiming, together with more than thirty members in the Yan family.

Deeply saddened by the tragedy, the calligrapher looked for his cousin and nephew’s bodies but only retrieved a few of their remains. Requiem to My Nephew was written under these unfortunate circumstances.

Sections of Requiem to My Nephew

Enraged by the loan of the prized masterpiece to Japan, many Chinese people voiced their anger on Chinese social media network Weibo with reference to the sensitive issues of Japan and China's wartime history and the Japanese occupation.

"This is humiliating. This piece represents the heart and soul of China... and they are sending it to Japan. This is an insult to our ancestors," wrote one Weibo user, according to the BBC. "Taiwan would rather loan our national treasure to Japan rather than give it back to us. Taiwan is crazy," another added.

National Palace Museum is not credited on the early promotional materials for the exhibition

In December 2018, the loan was also the subject of a heated debate in the Taiwan's Legislative Yuan where legislators questioned why the National Palace Museum was not credited on the promotional materials for the exhibition. Some people also expressed concern for potential damage that could incur during the transportation and exhibition given that the masterpiece, with a history of more than 1,200 years, is extremely fragile and delicate.