Ling Lui

A Hong Kong current affairs journalist interested in travel and addicted to text.

The emperor knows

01 2015 | Issue 1

When ministers in ancient times reported to the Chinese emperor, he would say in response, “The Emperor knows.” Who would have thought that phrase would today become a hot commodity in the creative industry?

Taipei’s National Palace Museum started selling rolls of sticky tape printed with the slogan “The Emperor Knows” in July 2013. The text is written in the official style of the Qing Emperor Kangxi. Up to this July, the museum has sold over 140,000 units of the tape. At TW$200 a box, it’s brought in TW$28 million in sales for the museum. The item ranked fifth in an award for Taiwan’s top 100 creative industries hosted by La Vie magazine.

But the museum’s best-selling item isn’t this Qing-inspired roll of tape. Instead, the best-sellers are souvenirs spawned from the crown jewel of the museum, the “jade cabbage”, including key rings, mobile phone straps, wine openers and hundreds of other items. The jade cabbage, as it’s known, is a treasure of the Qing court. It is a cabbage-shaped artefact carved from a natural block of jade, and is said to be a favourite of the Empress Dowager Cixi. According to Taiwanese media earlier this year, souvenirs based on the jade cabbage net about TW$140 million a year, or one-fifth of the total revenue of the National Palace Museum.

So what does it take for a museum to stand out in the creative industry?

In fact, the museum started off only with printing postcards and replicating artefacts until 1983 when Chinese scholar Chin Hsiao-yi became director of the museum. Chin was an advisor to both Taiwanese presidents Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo, and was an expert in Confucian classics. Upon his appointment, he vowed to at once preserve the museum’s history while modernising it, and to combine the arts with everyday life, setting the museum on a new path in the creative industry.

On the one hand, this increases revenue for the museum, and on the other it allows visitors to bring back a piece of the museum home with them and spread the message of art. Many licensed manufacturers of souvenirs for the museum have also blossomed into small or medium businesses, expanding their operations to mainland China.

Furthermore, the National Palace Museum is also publishing monthly and quarterly magazines to educate people further about its events and exhibitions.

To enter overseas markets, the museum has also teamed up with well-known brands, producing a Qing Dynasty-themed homeware collection with Italy’s Alessi, for example, as well as a line of ceramics decorated with Chinese paintings in collaboration with Taiwan’s Franz Collection.

It’s inevitable that the museum’s products would attract counterfeiters in mainland China, who sell these items online on places like Taobao. At first, the museum only planned to deal with the matter through the mechanism of cross-strait discussions. It later established an intellectual property protection task force, employing legal professionals to investigate these counterfeit incidents to hold those responsible accountable even on the mainland. The National Palace Museum rightly decided to get into the creative industry, but it also underscores that the museum needs to respond to global trends and keep up with the times.