Journey to the South: How China Saved Its Most Precious Artifacts
This is part one of a series on the people who saved the heart of China’s Palace Museum from ruin. View the entire series here.
This year marks the 600th anniversary of the Forbidden City’s completion. Finished in 1420, this majestic palace has outlasted two dynasties and a host of emperors to become a globally recognized cultural icon and the embodiment of a nation’s shared fantasies about its glorious history.
Of course, history is not always glorious. Less than a century ago, the Forbidden City — by then a museum, not a palace, though somewhat confusingly named the Palace Museum — was at risk of being ransacked. In a desperate bid to save it, the museum’s director floated a bold and highly controversial plan to evacuate many of its most precious relics, a collection built over centuries, hundreds of kilometers south. What followed was an odyssey that would span decades and continents, the effects of which are still being felt today.
In September 1931, the Japanese army had seized the entirety of Northeast China, almost to the outskirts of Beiping, as Beijing was then known. The next summer, worried that Japanese soldiers would soon move south to occupy the city, then-director of the Palace Museum Yi Peiji proposed shipping the collection’s most valuable items to the relative safety of Shanghai’s foreign concession.
His proposal caused a public uproar. Well-known intellectuals like Lu Xun and Hu Shih publicly expressed their disapproval. They argued the Kuomintang government shouldn’t prioritize valuable antiques over the protection of its land and the people. Others suspected the government was planning to abandon Beiping, stirring fraught memories of the sack of the Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 and the looting of the city by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. Now museum officials were proposing to entrust the country’s cultural heritage to some of those same powers.
Chambers of commerce, trade unions, workers and peasants associations, and other civil groups in the city jointly formed the “Beiping City People’s Association for the Protection of Antiquities in the Palace Museum” with the explicit aim of stopping these antiquities from being transported south. Their arguments could be boiled down into three main points. First, there were fears about the relics being lost, stolen, sold, or damaged en route. Second, at a time when the entire country was being asked to sacrifice to resist Japanese aggression, some wondered why China wouldn’t be prepared to sacrifice its relics, too. And third, a number of commentators argued that moving the relics effectively amounted to surrendering Beiping without a fight.
But widespread opposition failed to derail the plan. The powerful politician T.V. Soong sided with Yi, and the Palace Museum’s staff began making painstaking preparations for the collection’s journey south. “A country can always be reborn,” Soong warned, “but a culture, once lost, can never be restored.”
Having been given a tentative green light, museum staff gathered the relics together in Yanxi Palace, one of the six eastern palaces of the inner court, and loaded them into sturdy wooden crates. The contents of each crate were recorded on two separate lists — one was left inside the crate, and the other was entered into a log for inspection.
Among the relics slated for removal were national treasures like the massive Siku Quanshu library, Wang Xizhi’s calligraphic “Timely Clearing After Snowfall,” and the contents of the Sanxitang, or “Hall of Three Rarities.” Of the thousands of articles of bronzeware and porcelain on display in the palace, anything that could realistically be transported was packed into crates. Even the imperial “dragon throne” found itself boxed up.
Naturally, this had to be done with great care. For instance, the edges of porcelain plates were encased in cotton. Then, the plates were stacked and secured with rope. Finally, each stack was wrapped in paper and separated from one another using cotton or straw. Paintings and calligraphy were wrapped with “oil paper” to prevent water damage. Bronzeware expert Wu Yuzhang went to such great lengths during the packing process that when staff later opened his handiwork for inspection, they realized the contained items could only be returned to their boxes in the exact order in which they had been removed. Otherwise, it was near-impossible to fit everything back in again.
The Stone Drums of Qin posed a particular challenge. Named for their drum-like shape and known as “China’s first antiquities” — the Qin being the first dynasty to unify what is today China — these 10 granite boulders weigh up to a ton each and are covered in inscriptions. After much consultation, Palace Museum staff decided to cover the surface of the drums in damp paper, which they then patted lightly with cotton until it dried, so that it would cling to the surface of the stone and protect the inscriptions. Then, each boulder was wrapped in two cotton blankets, secured with tight hemp braids, and loaded into crates. Empty spaces in the crates were filled out with straw to keep the boulders stable, and the crates were finally bolted shut with iron.
Even after all of the crates had been packed, however, the date of the move was continually delayed. It was only on Feb. 4, 1933, that the Kuomintang government officially gave the order to proceed. The next morning, over a dozen automobiles and more than 300 rickshaws entered the Forbidden City through its main gateway, the Meridian Gate. Palace staff rushed back and forth, issuing special identification numbers to each of the cars and giving drivers paper badges emblazoned with the Chinese character ji, or “auspicious,” so that they could be identified by law enforcement. They toiled from sunrise to sunset, and by the end of the day, all 2,412 of the crates were ready to be dispatched.
At 8 that night, the road from Tiananmen Square through the Great Qing Gate to Zhengyangmen West Train Station was put under martial law. Only vehicles bearing special identification and staff wearing ji badges were allowed to travel on or even approach this route. At 9 p.m., the crates of the Palace Museum joined several hundred others from institutions such as the Beiping Antiquity Exhibition Hall and the Summer Palace at the train station, where they were loaded onto no fewer than 21 carriages. As the train trundled off, it was followed closely by a convoy consisting of 14 Palace Museum staff and hundreds of gendarmes in escort vehicles sent by the warlord general Zhang Xueliang.
Out of an abundance of caution, the train didn’t stick to the most direct route — the Beiping-Shanghai line — for the entirety of the journey, but instead took a number of detours. It zigzagged from Beiping to the central city of Zhengzhou, then to the eastern city of Xuzhou, before winding its way back to the Beiping-Shanghai line. On the afternoon of Feb. 10, 1933, the train arrived at Nanjing’s Pukou Station, just 300 kilometers from Shanghai.
There the procession ground to an unexpected halt. It was in Nanjing, the Kuomintang’s new capital, that the director of the Palace Museum’s archives, Zhang Ji, proposed a last-minute change of plan. Believing it shameful to store the nation’s treasures in a foreign concession, Zhang argued that at least some of the antiquities should be transferred back north to the central city of Kaifeng, itself an ancient capital.
He might have succeeded, if not for opposition from Soong, who also happened to be brother-in-law to China’s then leader Chiang Kai-shek. For his part, Chiang possibly preferred to keep the relics in his capital of Nanjing, but was thwarted by the lack of any place to store them. After about a month of debate, Chiang sided with the pro-Shanghai faction, at least temporarily, and allowed the relics to continue on their journey.
So it was that, on March 5, 1933, the first batch of ships carrying antiquities from the Palace Museum docked at the Jinliyuan Wharf on Shanghai’s Bund. Officers of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau and the French Concession Police were among those present to guard the scene. By May 23, all five batches of cultural relics had safely arrived in Shanghai, where they were stored across the international settlement and French Concession.
The Palace Museum’s cultural relics might have been boxed up, but Palace Museum staff members did their best to fulfill their curatorial duties. Although they were suddenly very limited in terms of research materials, they went back to collating the Records of Emperor Qing Taizhong and other tasks that they had been working on prior to their journey south. The inclusion of the Siku Quanshu among the relics that were moved also had an unintended side effect: Museum staff photocopied and published extracts of the text for the first time.
Ultimately, the move to Shanghai was just the first stop on the peregrination of the Palace Museum’s collection. In December 1936, just months before the Japanese would commence a full-scale invasion of the Chinese mainland, the relics would embark on yet another journey, one that would take them deep into China’s interior.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The Palace Museum’s collection is boxed up for transport in the Forbidden City, Beijing, 1933. Courtesy of the Palace Museum)