A traditional Chinese red porcelain vase embossed with a design of bamboo and magpies was chosen as a gift from Taiwan for new Pope Francis. The piece from the Franz Collection, a Taiwanese pottery brand, however, sparked a dispute in Taiwan March 18 over its appropriateness as a present for a European.
Opposition Democratic Progressive Legislator Chiu Chih-wei said in a hearing at the Legislative Yuan that day that magpies are regarded as troublemakers and thieves in Europe. They are a symbol of misfortune in that continent, he said, criticizing President Ma Ying-jeou as having picked the wrong gift.
How could an exquisite and artistic vase go wrong as a token of best wishes? In traditional Chinese culture, magpies are called "xi queh" -- joyful magpies -- and they symbolize joy and good luck. They are regarded as a good omen.
In Europe, however, the bird is an omen of foreboding, according to Chiu.
On the issue, Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai, who lived in Europe for many years, said there is nothing wrong with the magpie-themed gift. "Goodwill won't be misunderstood," she pointed out.
The bird represents different things in different countries, Lung explained, noting that in Germany, it is sometimes described as "a lovely thief because it takes away sparkling things."
It's quite all right to give the new pope a magpie-themed gift, she said, as it will allow the pontiff to learn the meanings of the bird in other countries.
The following are excerpts of local newspaper reports on the issue:
United Daily News:
Education Minister Chiang Wei-ling said he does not know what magpies symbolize in Europe, but in Taiwan they are named with the word for "joy," so he believes the bird represents a "matter worth celebrating."
Lin Li, an associate professor at Tamkang University's Graduate Institute of European Studies, said the bird is disliked in Britain for being noisy. There, it is regarded as a troublemaker, he said.
Citing a British fable, Lin said when all birds around the world cried as Jesus was nailed to the cross, only the magpies remained clamorous.
Moreover, the bird is regarded as a thief in North Europe, but represents nothing bad in South and Central Europe, he noted.
Monsignor Paul Russell, the Vatican's top envoy to Taiwan, was agreeable when he was asked by the Presidential Office for his opinion on the magpie-themed gift. He said Pope Francis is a bird lover and that the magpies embossed on the red vase send a message of congratulation.
Franz Collection Inc. manager Nicky Chen said the company respects every different interpretation of the porcelain vase. However, when it is about gifts, a heart with sincerity is all that matters, she said, urging people to focus on that.
Sources said the government might change its mind and present the new pope with another Franz product as a gift instead of the magpie vase.
Foreign Minister David Lin said he knows people in different European areas have different opinions of magpies. However, "we do not present magpies as a gift, but a vase," he said, noting that before deciding upon the gift, his ministry had asked for Russell's opinion.
In response to media inquiries, Russell said that when one person wants to give a gift to another, it is the person who gives the gift who decides what to give. The person who receives the gift is grateful for the kindness of the giver, he said. (March 19, 2013)
(By Elizabeth Hsu)