Free China Journal, 07/18/2003

Germany hosts palace museum treasures
Tilman Aretz

For the second time since World War II, art treasures from the National Palace Museum will be exhibited in Europe. The show will be on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin from July 18 to Oct. 12 and the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn from Nov. 21 to Feb. 15, 2004. The exhibition will be even more extensive than the one at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1999. Tilman Aretz, editor of Taiwan heute, delves into the background of such overseas exhibitions and the history of the collection.

No fewer than 400 objects from the collection of the National Palace Museum will be sent to Berlin and Bonn, including paintings, calligraphy, jade, bronzeworks, porcelain and other objects from the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) to the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911).

Preparations and negotiations for the exhibition titled "Treasures of the Sons of Heaven: The Imperial Collection from the National Palace Museum Taipei" started 10 years ago. Since its foundation in 1925, the National Palace Museum has organized several exhibitions in foreign countries: 1935 in London, 1940 in Moscow, 1961-1962 in five U.S. cities, 1964 in New York, 1970 in Osaka and 1998-1999 in Paris. For political reasons, such exchanges became very difficult for the Republic of China after 1971.

After many nations established diplomatic relations with Beijing--France in 1964; Japan, Great Britain and Germany in 1972, and the United States in 1979--it was feared that the artifacts might be subject to claims by Beijing, and lengthy lawsuits might follow. For this reason, the National Palace Museum demands guarantees of legal protection for artifacts and noninterference by third parties from the governments of host countries before each exhibition.

Host countries must also finance the exhibition, partner institutions in host countries must be museums or galleries and final decisions concerning choice of artifacts lies with the Taiwan government. In this way, the 1991 and 1996 exhibitions of the palace museum in the United States could be facilitated.

In 1998, the German parliament passed a law concerning the protection of foreign art treasures during exhibitions in Germany. In November 2002, representatives from Germany and Taiwan finally signed an agreement, clearing the way for this important cultural exchange. The 400 objects sent to Germany show a representative cross-section of the museum's huge collection.

Exhibits The National Palace Museum's collection is not limited to artifacts that came into the hands of Chinese rulers since the Sung Dynasty. The museum also has items that exemplify 7,000 years of cultural development in China, beginning with the Neolithic Age.

The museum's antiques consist of bronze objects, ceramics, porcelain, jade, lacquerware, enamel and glazeworks, carvings, weaving and embroidery, clothing accessories and much more. Meanwhile, painting and calligraphy include stone rubbings, painted fans, textiles and embroidery, and the collection contains rare books and documents from the Ching court.

The National Palace Museum owns more than 147,000 books--11,000 in Manchu or Mongolian and 386,000 court documents from the Ching Dynasty. The 400 objects that will be shown in Berlin and Bonn consist of 144 paintings, calligraphy and textile objects, 237 different kinds of bronze, jade, ceramics, porcelain, lacquerware and cloisonne, and 19 rare books.

An odyssey Today's National Palace Museum opened in 1965 in Taipei's northern suburb of Waishuanghsi. The museum first came into being in 1925 in Beijing's Forbidden City but the Imperial Collection is much older. Chinese history is replete with turmoil and upheaval. Nevertheless, the precious art treasures have been preserved for subsequent dynasties, which enlarged the collection.

After the turmoil of the Five Dynasties (907-960), the Northern Sung Dynasty came into power. Founding father Emperor Taizu, who reigned from 960-976, wanted to support literature and art and gave the order to found the Hanlin Academy in 961. After his death, his brother Taizong, who ruled from 976-997, started collecting paintings and calligraphy by old masters.

The Son of Heaven sent special emissaries throughout the country in order to collect and buy paintings, calligraphy, sculpture, earthenware, books, woodcarvings and everything else the emperor's heart desired. The treasures were then brought to the then-capital Kaifeng. When imperial emissaries were interested but owners did not want to sell, they simply confiscated the object in question.

In 989, Taizong founded the Imperial Pavilion for literature and art, thereby starting a collection of rare books, old paintings and calligraphy. This pavilion is now known as the Palace Museum of the Northern Sung Dynasty. During the reign of Emperor Huizong from 1119-1126--he was a famous calligrapher in his own right--the imperial collection was enlarged and a full inventory was made.

Beginning in 1125, the Jurchen began military incursions and in the following year, they took the capital Kaifeng. The Sung Dynasty fled southwards to Hangzhou, while the Jurchen expanded their empire in northern China. While some of the imperial art collection in Kaifeng was plundered, the first emperor of the Southern Sung Dynasty (1126-1279), Emperor Gaozong, who ruled from 1126-1162, made great efforts to reconstitute it.

In the 13th century, the Mongol invasion began. The Mongols crushed the Jin Empire, invading Sichuan and conquering Hangzhou in 1276. The Southern Sung Dynasty ended in 1279 and the Mongols had the imperial art collection transported to their new capital--Beijing.

The Yuan Dynasty, however, did not last even 100 years. As a reaction to tyrannical foreign rule, the secret society of the Red Turbans came into being. Their resistance expanded into a countrywide rebellion, which finally expelled the Mongols from China. The leader of the rebellion became the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and Nanking became the new capital.

After the capital was transferred to Beijing in 1421, a permanent place to keep the art collection was created when Emperor Yongle, who ruled from 1403-1424, built the Forbidden City.

The Ming Dynasty was followed by the Ching Dynasty (1644-1911). The Manchus were not as despotic as the Mongols. They tried to adapt to the style of the Chinese upper class. Emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1736-1795, was a passionate art collector.

With the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, the government exhibited the art treasures, including objects from Shenyang and in the summer palace in Jehol, in the Forbidden City. The last emperor, however, sold many treasures to finance his expensive lifestyle, while others were stolen by palace eunuchs.

When Pu Yi finally left the Forbidden City, an ad-hoc commission was set up to do inventory. On Oct. 10, 1925--national day--the National Palace Museum was officially inaugurated and opened to the public. Finally normal people could visit the Forbidden City and see the imperial art treasures. This created a sensation because under imperial rule, intruders were beheaded.

The peaceful displays ended on Sept. 18, 1931 when the Japanese Empire attacked Manchuria. At the time, there was little doubt about its expansionist policies. The National Palace Museum moved to place irreplaceable objects in stable cases, and on Feb. 5 1933, the order came to evacuate them. A total of 19,557 cases were carried by night on wheelbarrows to the main station in Beijing on a flight that would last 16 years and end in a trip of more than 12,000 kilometers.

The full Japanese invasion in 1937 quickly advanced into the interior of the country and Shanghai fell in November. The art objects were no longer safe in Nanking since it was merely 260 kilometers away so another evacuation was ordered. The cases in Nanking were divided into three groups. The first group of 80 cases was shipped westwards in August 1937 to Changsha. The war, however, quickly arrived and the cases were sent to Guiyang to be stored in a cave.

The second group of 7,000 cases was sent by train to Baoji, where it was temporarily stored in two temples due to a lack of rail cars. Just before Japanese bombed the area, the collection was brought to Chengdu. It was necessary to cross five rivers without bridges on the 255-kilometer road between Hanzhong and Chengdu.

Nor was Chengdu a safe harbor. The government transferred to Chongqing and Nanking was taken by the Japanese Dec. 13, 1937. Chengdu--only 250 kilometers from the provisional capital of Chongqing--quickly became a target for Japanese bombers. The cases were then transferred southwest to Emei, where they remained until 1945. The odyssey from Nanking to Emei had taken one and a half years.

The third group of cases was put on a freighter and before Japanese troops entered Nanking, they were shipped to Hankou. The ship did not remain long but went on to Chongqing. When the first bombs fell on Chongqing, these cases were transferred to Leshan, where they arrived in September 1939 and were stored until the end of the war.

At war's end, 13,484 cases had survived and in March 1947, the whole collection was brought to Chongqing and finally shipped back to Nanking. Temporarily the collection was stored in rooms infested by insects and employees had to go around on hands and knees with flashlights to poison the insects. On Dec. 9, 1947, the collection was finally back in the museum in Nanking, and in the spring of 1948, the first postwar exhibition opened.

It was only a lull in hostilities. The long dispute between the ruling Kuomintang and Communist Party broke out soon after the capitulation of the Japanese, expanding into a bloody civil war. The Communists soon overran much of China, and in November 1948, the KMT government evacuated the art treasures to Taiwan.

There was not much time left for museum employees to pack 610,000 objects of art. Three ships were loaded and the last ship left Nanking Jan. 29, 1949, though 700 cases had to be left behind because space was needed for refugees.

After arriving in Keelung in northern Taiwan Feb. 22, 1949, the collection was shipped to Peikou near Taichung, and in April 1950 stored in caves in Wufeng. They remained there for 15 years because nobody wanted to talk about building a new museum since the KMT still hoped to return to China. Nevertheless in 1957, a small exhibition room was installed in front of the caves in Wufeng, where some of the objects of the collection were shown.

Plans to build a new palace museum were put on the agenda one decade after the end of the civil war. In 1965, construction of the building in Waishuanghsi was completed and the museum was inaugurated Nov. 12 on the 100th anniversary of the birth of the nation's founding father: Sun Yat-sen. Finally, the odyssey of the art objects had ended.

Copyright 2003 by Tilman Aretz.