In a valley on the outskirts
, school classes, families and tourists clog
the entrance to the National Palace Museum. After a three-year gap, some of the world's foremost
cultural treasures - the art collections of the Chinese emperors - are once again on view.
The 650,000 artefacts and documents, which any other nation might see as a blessing
, have, however, not always been welcomed by the people of Taiwan. For 40 or 50 years the collection was "far removed from the Taiwanese people", says Lin Mun-lee, the museum's director.
This is because the museum's history has been inseparably entangled
with events that laid the foundation for today's cross-strait
tensions. When Chiang Kai-shek, the late Chinese dictator, arrived with his troops and the collection in 1949, many Taiwanese did not speak Mandarin, but only the Taiwanese dialect and Japanese. Some of the elite identified themselves with Japan rather than with China.
Taiwan's new ruler crushed
every protest against his rule, and the use of the Taiwanese dialect in schools. One of the most important instruments he used to back his Nationalist Chinese ideology was the treasure he had brought from the mainland.
"For Chiang Kai-shek, legitimising his claim of representing all of China was more important than the love for these cultural relics," says Ms Lin.
The Palace Museum became a cabinet agency and a Chinese palace-style home. Documentation of the way the Kuomintang troops had rescued the imperial treasures from the "communist bandits", and a larger-than-life
statue of Mr Chiang, were prominently on display.
Ms Lin sees her most important task as shaking off the museum's political legacy
. She wants not only to continue to preserve the cultural relics but also "to use them to create a new civilisation, a new Taiwanese culture".
When Taiwan saw its first change of ruling party in 2000, the new government began cautiously
removing some of the museum's political content. The Chiang statue and other reverential
KMT memorabilia were taken away. Tu Cheng-sheng, Ms Lin's predecessor
as museum director, now education minister, made the museum's political past a theme in itself, organising tours with some of those who had accompanied the exhibits on their journey through China and across the strait.
Further reforms under way clearly show that the museum's past as a bastion of Chinese orthodoxy is at last over. The most important change is a branch the museum plans to set up in southern Taiwan, a region where pro-independence leanings and anti-Chinese sentiment
To mark its reopening, the Palace Museum is hosting a special exhibition from London's British Museum. This is a clear hint
that it wants to broaden its cultural horizons.
The government has also proposed a new charter for the museum that would no longer state that most of the exhibits come from the Forbidden City in Beijing, but would describe the collections as "domestic and foreign artifacts" - a change that triggered a tirade from the Chinese government, against Taipei's efforts at " de-Sinification
Ms Lin says that she is keen
not to be drawn on "the debate over independence or unification". "It was fate that these things, the essence of the finest Chinese culture has produced, were to come to Taiwan. Now they're here . . . we need to develop self-confidence and make them our own," she says.
And she adds: "For decades, this used to be the mausoleum of dead things. But you add in human creativity, and they come alive."