How imperial treasures escaped Japanese, civil war unscathed

September 23, 2015 14:50
A rare antique vase is displayed at  the Palace Museum in Beijing. The museum had a few narrow escapes before it reopened in 1971. Last year, it received 15 million visitors, ranking top in the world. Photo: The Palace Museum

This year, the Hong Kong media has devoted enormous space to the anti-Japanese war from 1931 to 1945.

But one story was missed -- how the treasures of the imperial palace survived the war unscathed and how 19,600 crates were moved from Beijing for a journey of thousands of kilometres across China, before many were taken to Taiwan by the Nationalist government.

In Taipei, it built the National Palace Museum (NPM), which Oct. 10 will celebrate its 90th birthday together with its elder brother, the Palace Museum in Beijing.

The story begins on Nov. 5, 1924 when Pu Yi was expelled from the palace where he and other emperors had lived for 500 years.

Inspired by the Louvre and other royal palaces in Europe, members of the Republican government decided to turn the imperial residence into the Palace Museum.

Staff carried out the first inventory of the treasures and discovered 1.17 million pieces.

The new museum opened on Oct. 10, 1925, the 14th anniversary of the Republic of China.

In 1933, after the Japanese army had conquered Manchuria and was threatening northern China, the museum directors moved 19,600 crates to protect them from possible seizure by the Japanese.

They were moved to Shanghai and stored in a Catholic church in the French concession.

The government built a new museum in Nanjing for them.

In July 1937, after Japan began its full-scale invasion, the directors moved the art pieces to the southwest, out of the reach of Japanese bombers.

Over the next eight years, they were stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, they were gradually moved back to Nanjing but the civil war prevented their return to Beijing.

During this eight-year odyssey, no pieces were lost or stolen -- a tribute to the dedication of the staff who accompanied them everywhere and the accuracy of military intelligence which enabled them to be moved before the arrival of Japanese bombers -- and, many believe, the protection of God.

When he moved to Taiwan in 1949, then President Chiang Kai-shek took with him a fifth of the pieces brought from Beijing, together with the nation’s gold and foreign exchange reserves.

In 1965, the government opened the NPM in a northern suburb of Taipei.

It now houses 700,000 pieces, including art objects, scripts and memorials; most were brought from the mainland, plus donations and acquisitions.

The collection is so large that it can only display a small fraction at any one time.

The history of the Palace Museum in Beijing is no less dramatic.

In 1958, the city’s Cultural Bureau proposed demolishing 70 per cent of the buildings and turning the space into a park.

It said that new China did not need these relics of a "feudal past".

The closest shave came on Aug. 19, 1966, the day after Mao Zedong and Lin Biao addressed tens of thousands of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square; he called for the destruction of the "four olds" – old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas.

Overlooking the square, the museum was the most conspicuous example.

Fearful of what would happen, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai that night ordered the gates to be closed and soldiers to be stationed there.

The next morning, screaming Red Guards demanded to enter, but the gates were kept shut. The museum did not reopen until July 1971 to allow a visit by Henry Kissinger who was preparing for the historic trip by Richard Nixon.

The two museums will celebrate their 90th birthday in excellent shape.

Last year, the Beijing museum received 15 million visitors, ranking first in the world; the NPM had 5.4 million, ranking seventh.

Never has the status of Chinese art been higher in the world.

Museums around the world compete to exhibit pieces from Beijing and Taipei.

Like their governments, the two museums remain separate and distinct, but share the common glory of the art they display.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.