Some 150 years after British and French soldiers looted Beijing’s Summer Palace, two bronze sculptures seized then are playing an unlikely part in improving strained ties between China and Taiwan.

A bronze rabbit head and a rat sculpture from the Qing Dynasty period (1644-1912) were auctioned in February as part of a collection owned by famous French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The auction caused uproar in China, with the government demanding the statues be returned to Beijing.

On Wednesday, Beijing found an unlikely ally in the dispute with Taiwan’s national palace museum refusing to showcase the sculptures as part of an exhibition of Qing Dynasty sculptures.

Taiwan and China have had a strained relationship since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 with Beijing claiming sovereignty over the island. Ties have warmed considerably in recent years, particularly after last year’s election of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, known for his China-friendly policies.

As a sign of warming ties, the two neighbours this week are holding their first-ever joint exhibition of relics, with Beijing for the first time loaning 37 pieces from its Palace Museum to Taipei. Taipei holds vast collections of ancient Chinese artwork, many of which were taken to the island when the Kuomintang fled China after its defeat in the 1949 civil war to the Communists.

On Wednesday, Chou Kung-shin of Taiwan’s national palace museum said the two Qing Dynasty sculptures would not be displayed “in accordance with professional museum ethics”. Pierre Berge, Mr. Laurent’s partner who now owns the sculptures, said the museum “did not want to create a bone of contention” with Beijing. In the February auction, a Chinese collector bid $24 million for the works, but subsequently did not pay up, so the two statues are still in Paris.

Mr. Berge has said he would not return the pieces to China until the country “guaranteed human rights” and allowed the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, to return to China.

The attack on the Summer Palace by French and British troops in 1860 is a politically significant and sensitive event in Chinese history, portrayed in Chinese textbooks as the defining image of Western imperialism in China. In the ruling Communist Party’s nationalistic narrative of modern Chinese history, the Summer Palace’s burning is often invoked as Chinese civilisation’s nadir, to contrast the country’s past weakness with its current resurgence.

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