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October, 1, 2016

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Are Jackie Chan's sculptures art or propaganda?

Feng Ming-chu may have profound knowledge of the history of Chinese art, but she should have demonstrated more awareness of current issues when accepting a set of sculptures donated by movie star Jackie Chan on behalf of the National Palace Museum (NPM).

A few months after Feng stepped down as the NPM's director, her successor, Lin Jeng-yi, has decided to remove the bronze sculptures that have been on display at the museum's southern branch in Chiayi.

Lin said the sculptures were removed because local art critics determined that the works — a set of the heads of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals — had little "artistic value" and that they were "highly politically controversial."

Feng, as an art expert, may be in a better position than most of us to determine the artistic value of the sculptures, but there's no denying that they have provoked much protest since they were displayed outside the main building at the museum's Chiayi branch last year.

Shortly after the bronze sculptures were unveiled, a couple of protesters vandalized them by spraying red paint on them. The protesters argued that the sculptures represented Beijing's agenda to eventually achieve cross-strait unification.

The controversy is not rooted in the fact that the sculptures represent a major part of Chinese folk culture, but rather that they allude to a tumultuous period in China's history in the 19th century.

The original bronze sculptures were looted by foreign powers from the Qing Dynasty's Summer Palace in Beijing in 1860. The set donated to the NPM are replicas of these originals.

The Chinese people have been eager to recover these original bronze sculptures, seeing the return of these looted items as a redress for past wrongs committed by the West and a sign of the rebirth of a powerful nation.

So it is not difficult to see why such a set of historically and politically loaded sculptures is unwelcome in a place that does not share the eagerness to build a powerful China. They are unwelcome also because of the donor's strong political connections with Beijing.

The reasons that Feng has given in defending her decision to accept Chan's donation may all be justified: The Chinese zodiac represents a commonly shared culture in Asia, not part of China's "united front warfare"; the sculptures are modern replicas, not fakes as described by critics; they are a set of installation art; and the museum accepted them due to the merit of the sculptures themselves, not because of the identity of the donor.

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