Asia-PacificTaipei Letter

Taiwan showcasing shared culture with China as tensions rise

The great majority of the island’s people describe their national identity as Taiwanese, with only a handful identifying solely as Chinese

The gold finial for the imperial consort’s hat, inlaid with pearl and cat’s-eye gemstone, was captivating and the bronze incense burner in the shape of a cauldron was elegance itself. But we were drawn back again and again to a green dish about 16cm around with a rim the height of a soup plate.

This was Ru ware from the Song Dynasty in the 11th century and the delicate colour of its celadon glaze has been celebrated in China down the centuries. It was one of the objects in a new exhibition at Taipei’s National Palace Museum called The Splendour of Dream of the Red Chamber (until May 17th, 2026).

Also known as The Story of the Stone, the 18th-century Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber has been compared to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Its author calls up memories of the lost glory and opulence of a noble family that enjoyed great prestige during the High Qing era before its fortunes declined.

The exhibition uses objects from the museum’s collection and from two libraries in Taiwan to bring the visitor into the world of the novel. Watches and snuff boxes from Europe illustrate how families like that in the novel followed the latest fashions while objects such as the Ru dish reflect the wealth and luxury of the world the author is remembering.


Most of the 700,000 objects in the National Palace Museum were taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing in the early 1930s to prevent the invading Japanese forces from seizing them. They were moved first to Shanghai and later to Nanjing but in 1948, when the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek was losing the civil war to Mao Zedong’s communists, they moved the most valuable items to Taiwan.

After the civil war, when the nationalist army retreated to Taiwan, its leaders saw the move as a temporary one for the Republic of China, which still claimed the entire territory of China. For the next 40 years, Taiwan was a military dictatorship where classical Chinese culture was valued above the indigenous cultures of the island.

Until 1998, the school curriculum was focused almost exclusively on China but since then it has put a greater emphasis on the distinctive historical and cultural features of Taiwan. But the broader Chinese culture remains dominant and a cultivated Taiwanese is as likely to have read Dream of the Red Chamber as their equivalent in Beijing or Shanghai.

The performances at Lai Ching-te’s inauguration as Taiwan’s president on Monday reflected the island’s cultural diversity, with rappers using minority languages and a military band playing traditional, indigenous melodies. But the show included acrobats, dancers and opera performers from the temple culture that stretches back thousands of years in China.

While the Cultural Revolution saw the destruction of much traditional culture in mainland China, it was preserved in Taiwan and is now seen on the island as quintessentially Taiwanese. Kunqu opera, the oldest surviving form of Chinese opera, went into decline on the mainland but was revived in Taiwan.

Although Lai stresses his Taiwanese identity and referred to Taiwan as a nation in his inauguration speech, his own swearing-in ceremony revealed how the Republic of China he now leads remains in important ways the entity established on the mainland in 1912. During the swearing-in, Lai bowed before a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, the Republic’s founder who is buried in Nanjing and is revered in the People’s Republic of China too.

The great majority of the island’s people describe their national identity as Taiwanese, with about 30 per cent saying they are both Taiwanese and Chinese and only a handful identifying solely as Chinese. And while most Taiwanese prefer the status quo over a declaration of Taiwanese independence, hardly anyone on the island now says they want to reunify with China.

When Xi Jinping met former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou in Beijing last month, he stressed the shared cultural roots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, saying they are “all Chinese people”. Lai’s inauguration speech signalled a harder line towards Beijing, which responded with a military exercise simulating a blockade of the island.

Maintaining the status quo is a challenge in today’s heightened atmosphere but Taiwan’s ambiguous official status is a better option for now than any of the alternatives. Turning down the volume on both sides of the Taiwan Straits (and in the amen corner of Washington’s China hawks) might allow Taiwanese and mainland Chinese to enjoy their shared culture while they leave the constitutional question unresolved.