Both Extraordinary and Minor: Contested Exhibitions of Chinese Art Treasures in the Transpacific Cultural Cold War, 1952–62
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 11:10 AM
Centennial Ballroom G (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Based on primary sources in both Chinese and English, this paper focuses on the history of the unprecedented exhibitions of the National Palace Museum collections in five prestigious museums across the United States between 1961 and 1962. After the Nationalist (GMD) government lost the Chinese civil war and withdrew to Taiwan in 1949, the evacuated collections of the Palace Museum acquired new Cold War salience for the GMD to showcase an enduring Chinese culture to the United States as its most critical ally. Encouraged by American friends such as Henry Luce in the early 1950s, Chiang Kai-shek took consistent interests in seeing this cultural diplomacy initiative through. At the GMD request for official sponsorship, the U.S. government remained cautious until the late 1950s, and then endorsed the GMD campaign to represent cultural China. The emphasis on paintings and porcelains among the final exhibits by American curators underscored the particular taste of the English language scholarship on Chinese art. The inclusion of other genres such as calligraphy and bronzes reflected the urge to comprehensively educate foreigners on Chinese culture shared by the GMD and Chinese curators. Despite their apparent success in presenting an aesthetic and exotic China, the Chinese Art Treasures exhibitions failed to secure public support of the GMD’s cultural and political legitimacy.
Far from the only U.S. ally to stage grand spectacles of national culture during the Cold War, the GMD had considered such plans as early as the late 1930s as a pragmatic measure to win U.S. support. This study situates the Chinese Art Treasures exhibitions in the larger history of Chinese cultural diplomacy and highlights the early 1960s as the most opportune moment for such undertakings by the GMD. It also enriches the existing literature on cultural Cold War by foregrounding its neglected transpacific unfolding.