The border defines a country's boundary with neighboring states and is a natural flashpoint for international incidents. China's borders with Vietnam and Burma, over 3,600 kilometers in length, have since the Qing dynasty been a site for frequent clashes. Among the archives of the late Qing's Office in Charge of Affairs of All Nations (Zongli Geguo Shiwu Yamen, or Zongli Yamen) and the Beiyang Government's Ministry of Foreign Affairs held in trust by the National Palace Museum for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are a large number of Qing territorial treaties and records signed with France and Great Britain over borders with Vietnam and Burma, and maps that delineate the boundaries between Vietnam and the Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, and those between Yunnan and Burma. Owing to their sensitive and controversial nature, the documents were classified as highly confidential and sequestered from public view. In 2001, the Museum was entrusted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the task of collecting and digitizing these historical documents. In 2007, they were finally de-classified and have since been incorporated into an electronic database accessible by all. The Ministry also agreed to include them in exhibitions. In 2010 and 2011, the Museum mounted two presentations showcasing these documents, The Lost Frontier: Treaty Maps that Changed the Qing's Northwestern Boundaries and A Century of Resilient Tradition: an Exhibition of the Republic of China's Diplomatic Archives, which received great acclaim from both domestic and international visitors.
Situated on the eastern part of the Indochina Peninsula, Vietnam is bordered by the Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan to the north. Burma, lying on the western part of the peninsula, shares a border of more than 2,100 kilometers with Yunnan. During the Qing dynasty, both Vietnam and Burma were tributary states to imperial China, and as such they did not sign any territorial treaties with the Qing court; hence, China's southwestern borders remained fuzzy. However, following the Sino-French War during the Guangxu reign, the two sides signed the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Commerce, ending the Qing's suzerainty claim over Vietnam, and it led to proposals to clearly demarcate the border. Negotiations between the two sides ensued in the 11th year of the Guangxu reign (1885) and lasted till the 22nd year (1896). Over ten boundary treaties were signed, and borders were demarcated and signposts erected. Great Britain, on the other hand, invaded northern Burma in the 11th year and after three Anglo-Burmese Wars came to control the entire country. In the 12th year (1886), the Qing court signed the Convention Relative to Burma and Thibet with Great Britain, and agreed to send representatives to survey and demarcate the border between Yunnan and Burma. In the 20th year (1894), the two sides signed a supplementary agreement over the border and trade issues between Yunnan and Burma that confirmed the basic orientation of the central and southern borderlines. However, a large number of border disputes remained unsettled and continued into the Republic era.
The present exhibition is composed of five sections: "China's Southwest Borders before the Mid-Qing Dynasty," "Surveying the Sino-Vietnamese Border in Guangxi and Guangdong," "Erecting Signposts along the Sino-Vietnamese Border in Eastern and Western Guangxi," "Surveying the Sino-Vietnamese Border in Yunnan," and "Surveying the Yunnan-Burma Border." Along with the treaties and maps held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, documents and cartographic materials on Qing China's southwest borders from the Museum's collection are also on display. The objects selected are for the first time being unveiled to the public.