The Forbidden City

Lost treasures of a Two-Headed Dragon

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Lost treasures of a Two-Headed Dragon

Serving as the official seat of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Forbidden City holds the world's most extensive collection of Chinese art, consisting of roughly 1.8 million items. Yet the most valuable imperial relics, considered as an epitome of Chinese fine art, are found in Taiwan. Nearly 90 percent of Taipei's National Palace Museum collection was accumulated by the emperors themselves, despite the collection being only a third as big as that of Beijing.

The Forbidden City, China
The Forbidden City, China

The tale of the two museums began in 1924, when Pu Yi, the last Chinese emperor, was expelled from the palace in which his predecessors had lived for some 500 years. Although the deposed emperor had been allowed to remain in the palace after the 1911 revolution, the new Republican government decreed to remove him, blaming him, his eunuchs, and the courtiers in the disappearance of the palace's treasures. Inspired by the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Louvre in Paris, the government has declared in 1925 that the Forbidden City would turn into a 'Palace Museum', with a collection of 1.17 million pieces. The museum quickly attracted the attention of scholars, researchers, and writers from around the world. Sadly, the treasures that had survived despite centuries of pillaging were once again under threat when the Japanese Empire invaded Manchuria in 1933. The museum's supervisors decided to move a significant portion of the collection out of Beijing to a safer place. The experts carefully selected the most precious items of porcelain, jade, calligraphy, paintings, bronzes, and rare books to relocate. The artifacts, packed into 20,000 crates, were smuggled under cover of night to the Western Railway Terminal, where they were loaded onto a train heavily guarded by soldiers. "We heard there was a plan to rob the train. A cargo-carrying treasure spanning 2,000 years happens only once in many lifetimes. The night before, we were informed that about 1,000 bandits had gathered in the area. They were discovered by soldiers. On learning that their plan had been uncovered, they withdrew." wrote Wu Ying, the museum official in charge of that operation, in his memoir.


The National Palace Museum treasure fleeing Japanese forces in the 1930s

The train took to the south for Shanghai, far from the chaos in the country's northeast. In December 1934, the museum administrators began construction of an air-conditioned and reinforced cement warehouse to store the treasures in Nanjing, the newly selected capital far from the threats imposed by Japanese. Once the building was completed in 1936, the crates were moved from Shanghai to Nanjing. But the odyssey of these valuable treasures did not end there. In a cruel twist of fate, a battle broke out at Beijing's Marco Polo Bridge between Chinese and Japanese troops in July 1937, prompting the second Sino-Japanese war. In less than a month, the Japanese army occupied the Chinese capital and turned its attention southward. On August 13th, a battle took place in Shanghai. Those responsible for the treasure in Nanjing began evacuation the following day, as it was just a matter of time for the Japanese to arrive at their doorstep. But there was no escape from the Japanese. The Japanese invaded Nanjing on November 11th, leading to the Nanjing Massacre, or Nanjing Rape, an atrocious mass murder, rape, and looting committed by the Japanese Imperial army. Over the next eight years, the museum crates were concealed in temples, caves, tunnels, and even private homes, but no pieces were lost or stolen. During that time, the Japanese military was launching all-out attacks. "If the government had not helped, the pieces would have been destroyed. Take the 1944 attack on Changsha as an example. Some pieces had been stored in the library of Changsha University. The government got word that an air attack was imminent and ordered the pieces to be moved. When the attack came, the pieces had gone, but many of the people had not." said Fung Ming-chu, director of the National Palace Museum.

Taiwan's cultural relics of the Forbidden City
Taiwan's cultural relics of the Forbidden City

As the war ended with the surrender of the Japanese in 1945, the entire collection was moved back to Nanjing in a process that took longer than a year. In 1947, just as the cargo arrived, a civil war broke out across China between the nationalists and communists, which fought together against the Japanese invaders, but reverted to their conflict once the Japanese threat has been eliminated. Both sides claimed ownership over the treasure, preventing its return to the Forbidden City. With more military power, manpower, territory, and U.S backing versus the Communists, the Nationalists were favored to win. But postwar conditions in China benefited the Communists. Being the de facto recognized government by the international community and the Chinese people, the nationalists got the blame for unemployment and inflation. Mao Zedong promised Land Reforms that would give the peasants' land. This was hugely popular amongst the impoverished peasant class in China emerging after the collapse of the old feudal system, leading to many of them volunteering to Mao's army during the Civil War. This was a massive advantage when Mao and his army advanced into further territories. With the entire country about to fall to Mao Zedong's troops, the nationalists, led by President Chiang Kai-shek, decided to regroup on a small island off China's south-east coast, and then launch an attack to take back the mainland. In 1949, Chiang took with him to Taiwan about a quarter of the treasure, the very best of the best, together with the nation's gold and foreign exchange reserves. The rest of the valuables fell in the Red Army's hands and were returned to the Palace Museum in Beijing. The collection was now split in two, and so was China.

Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong in 1945
Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong in 1945

At first, Chiang saw his stay in Taiwan as temporary. Thus he did not intend to build a permanent home for the most exquisite art pieces of China on this tiny island. "We thought we would be in Taiwan for up to six months, and then the war would be over. So that was what we were prepared for." said retired antiquities expert Kao Jen-Chun. He boarded a ship with one suitcase and ended up spending his life in Taiwan. For more than a decade, the treasure was stored in a purpose-built vault in Taichung County, where they were listed in a comprehensive catalog that was later published as "The Collection of Chinese Artefacts". In the meantime, the fate of the remaining artifacts in China was in God's hands. In 1958, Beijing's Cultural Bureau, alleging that new China did not need relics of a feudal past, proposed demolishing 70 percent of the Forbidden City's buildings and turning the space into a park. Miraculously, the central government rejected the proposal. Another close call came in 1966 after Mao Zedong preached about the elimination of the "Four Olds"—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. In the eyes of the public, the museum was the most vivid symbol of all these. Red Guards labeled curators of the museum as "demons" and paraded them around the Forbidden City, criticizing their preservation work as "crimes against the people". Fortunately, the prime minister, Zhou Enlai, protected the museum from the screaming rioters by shutting its gates and stationing soldiers.

mao-zedong-portrait-at-the-forbidden-city-entrance-in-BEijing-China-Private-tours
Mao Zedong's portrait at the Forbidden City entrance

While the Cultural Revolution was raging through mainland China, the National Palace Museum opened in Taipei in 1965, to exhibit the objects smuggled away to Taiwan. Its building was adequately designed to protect its contents from earthquakes, typhoons, humidity, insects, pollution, and air raids, strategically located in a site at the foot of a mountain for security reasons. The items not on display were stored in a 180-meter-long tunnel through the mountain, to protect them from bombing. Controversially, the self-ruled island that China sees as a rebel province was portraying itself as a sole preserver of traditional Chinese culture, supporting its claim that the government in Taipei, and not this of Beijing, is the legitimate sovereign. Over a short period, the National Palace Museum came to be the island's most visited tourist attraction. The Palace Museum in Beijing, on the other hand, did not reopen until July 1971, when it received a visit by U.S national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who was preparing for Richard Nixon's historic trip to China. The museum staff, who had been sent to the countryside, were brought back for this occasion. Even though the two museums had opened one way or another, they remained separate and distinct like their governments.

National Palace Museum, Taiwan
National Palace Museum, Taiwan

The artifacts of the original Imperial Palace had taken an extraordinary 16-year journey of more than 75,000 kilometers until they had ended up in two different locations separated by miles, a stretch of the South China Sea, and a political divide. While Beijing's Palace Museum in the Forbidden City still holds unquestionably a more substantial hoard of artifacts, experts say the most significant achievements of Chinese art are resting in Taipei. One of the museum's most celebrated pieces is a cabbage carved from jadeite, which uses the natural colors of the stone to depict the vegetable, with a grasshopper concealed within the ruffle of leaves. Symbolizing the purity of a Chinese bride with its translucent green and white shades, this exquisite carving is believed to have belonged to Guangxu Emperor's favorite consort. The oldest pieces—a chunky jade necklace and loop earrings—date back more than 8,000 years. Taipei's painting collection includes an 18th-century Qing dynasty version of the scroll painting, "Along the River During the Qingming Festival", more than 10 meters long. This panorama follows the winding route of a waterway through a bustling city during one of China's most revered annual festivals, teeming with such detail of everyday life it would repay days of study by itself. Ceramics displayed in Taipei range from chunky Neolithic painted earthenware to vessels of elegant simplicity in glowing celadon and ruby red, seemingly so delicate that it might be shattered by merely a glance.

The Jadeite Cabbage, 19th century
The Jadeite Cabbage, 19th century

In the past few decades, China has instructed its officials to protect cultural relics. Hence things have been significantly improving for the Palace Museum. Underground storerooms have been built, and extensive renovations were carried out. In 2015, the museum had announced its massive conservation plan, aiming not only to step up preservation of the palace but also its gardens, elaborate imperial halls, public parks, and the government compound. In the meantime, the treasures in Taiwan are equally well preserved at the National Palace Museum, with a $120 million security system. The museum has been adding to its collection regularly over the decades to solidify its claim to be a sanctuary of Chinese art. These additions include donations, purchases, and transfers from other institutions. The scope of the museum has been continuously expanding since its opening. It is no secret that while many Taiwanese believe they saved China's art treasures, some on the mainland consider the act as pure theft. With the relations warming up on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing hopes that the inevitable unification of China and Taiwan would bring the lost treasure of Taiwan back to the Palace Museum in Beijing, which would end this six decades disagreement. In the meantime, the two rivals show signs of agreement with groundbreaking joint exhibitions displayed throughout the world, as a message of hope and peace.

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