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Documents in Taiwan tell the story of Chinese diplomacy
November 6, 2014

By Larry Luxner

From the signing of an 1842 treaty ending the First Opium War to an 1861 accord establishing China’s Foreign Ministry, the most important documents in Chinese history can all be found at the National Palace Museum — in Taiwan.

Lyushun Shen is head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States, which is Taiwan’s equivalent of an embassy in Washington. On Oct. 10, TECRO hosted a huge party at Twin Oaks Estate marking the 103rd anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of China.

Twelve days later, Shen addressed the 200th Washington-Asia Forum, an event held at American University and co-sponsored by the Asian Studies Research Council.

His speech, titled “Chinese Diplomatic Archives in Taiwan: Significance to Contemporary Cross-Strait Relations,” traces Chinese history through key treaties of the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The National Palace Museum is the largest museum in the world of Chinese civilization. It contains the most important diplomatic archives of modern China,” he said. “If you want to consult the original copies of the so-called Unequal Treaties signed between the Chinese Empire and foreign countries, don’t go to Beijing. They have nothing. They’re all in Taipei.”

He said the National Palace Museum possesses 173 original treaties and contracts ranging from the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, which formally ceded Hong Kong to the British, to an 1893 contract with Moscow to build the Chinese Eastern Railway to Manchuria, which he said “helped the Russians create a sphere of influence in Manchuria.”

“If you look at the signatures, written with Chinese brush pens, you can’t tell who signed them because those people didn’t want their offspring to know. But later, when you look at the Equal Treaties, you see their names very clearly.”

Shen has a doctorate degree in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania. Before becoming Taiwan’s top diplomat in the United States, he served as TECRO’s representative in London for three years; from 2009 to 2011, he was Taiwan’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.

He said that Lin Zexu — a Chinese hero of sorts who signed the 1842 opium treaty on behalf of the empire — is great-great-great-grandfather, “so I feel very personal when I see these documents.”

The Second Opium War, pitting the British Empire against China’s Qing Dynasty, saw the burning of the summer palace in Beijing and ened with the Convention of Peking signed in October 1860.

“This treaty provided that for the first time, foreign ambassadors could be stationed in Beijing. This was a very big concession for the empire,” he said. “Because of this, China had to set up its first foreign office. We in Taiwan have this imperial decree. On Mar. 11, 1861, China’s Foreign Ministry was founded, and three years ago, when I was deputy foreign minister in Taipei, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Foreign Ministry.”

Only seven years later, another key treaty was signed — this one known as the Burlingame Treaty — between China and the United States, which allowed Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens. What made this 1868 treaty unique is that it was an American, prominent diplomat Anson Burlingame, who signed it on behalf of the Qing Dynasty (the U.S. side was represented by Secretary of State William Seward).

“At that time, China had no diplomats. So when China needed to sign this treaty to provide for the introduction of Chinese workers to the United States to build railroads, they asked the outgoing American minister in China to negotiate this treaty for the empire,” Shen explained.

“It wasn’t just an equal treaty, but also gave China most favored nation status. So when the Irish workers built the railroad from east to west, the Chinese workers built from west to east, and they met somewhere in Utah,” he said. “The Irish workers stayed in this country after they finished, and because of this Burlingame treaty, so could the Chinese. Today, we have 25 Chinatowns in this country, to a large extent thanks to this treaty.”

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