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Interview: Journalist and author Mark O'Neill on the history of China's two Palace Museums

"No-one who goes to the Palace Museums cannot be unaffected"

Written by
Matt Fleming

A veteran local journalist and author, Mark O’Neill is a former correspondent for the South China Morning Post. O’Neill has written six books on the history of China and talks about his latest, The Miraculous History of China’s Two Palace Museums, which details how artefacts from Beijing’s Palace Museum found their way to Taipei before the Communist victory in 1949.

A lot of your work is about Asian history and politics. What has inspired you to write about this region rather than your home in Europe?
I’ve been living in Asia since 1978, including more than 16 years on the Mainland, three years in Taiwan, three-and-a-half-years in Japan and more than 10 years in Hong Kong. This has given me the opportunity to learn many things about Asian and, in particular, Chinese history. It’s a topic of limitless interest, especially the individuals involved. My six books have all been about people. I find their stories moving and fascinating. Readers do also.

Has your journalist’s background helped with the research for your most recent book, The Miraculous History of China’s Two Palace Museums?
Yes. During my time in Beijing and Taipei, I had the opportunity to visit both palace museums. No-one who goes to them cannot be unaffected. A journalist’s training gives you the techniques to do research and write quickly: try to use every hour usefully and not waste it on material you can’t use. Both museums were very helpful in providing materials about their history, especially the one in Taipei. I was able to interview at length two of its directors. I thank them very much for their precious time. It wasn’t hard to find sources.

China-Taiwan relations can be frosty. Has your book caused any controversy that you know of?
To my knowledge, the book hasn’t caused controversy. If so, it would be normal. The history of China in the 20th  century is very complex and there are many ways to interpret and analyse it. People hold very strong opinions about that history.

What activities will you be engaged in at the book fair?
For us authors, the book fair is wonderful. It’s an opportunity to show our books to the tens of thousands of visitors who all come together in one space. How long would it take to get that number in a single bookshop to see your works? So I will be at the Joint Publishing stand to promote my books. Also, the fair has kindly invited me to give a presentation on my book on the two palace museums. Every year the talks are all very well organised, with a large turnout and many 
sales. It allows us to reach many new readers.

What’s your previous experience of the book fair?
The fair is excellent, especially for those of us whose books are done by HK publishers. Hong Kong is our natural market. I’ve given presentations on the palace museum book in Taipei, Beijing and Macau but sales have been strongest here. Here we have the support of the publisher and local bookshops. The book is on sale at Eslite bookshops in Taiwan, as well as in Hong Kong.

Are you working on a new book?
Yes, I am working on another book. It’s about an extraordinary person in China’s history, for Joint Publishing, with editions in Chinese and English. I hope to be able to present it at the Book Fair in 2017.

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