Bringing the Forbidden City to London
This is part two of a series on the people who saved the heart of China’s Palace Museum from ruin. View the entire series here.
In the early 1930s, as the possibility of a Japanese invasion loomed ever larger, officials at China’s Palace Museum boxed up almost its entire collection and shipped it hundreds of miles south to the relative safety of Shanghai. Almost immediately after the artifacts arrived at their destination in May 1933, museum staff set about making an inventory, a process that would take two and a half years.
But just because the Palace Museum had made it south didn’t mean its odyssey was at an end. Within months, the Chinese government made plans to send part of the collection — more than 700 items — on a longer and far more perilous maritime journey to the United Kingdom. There, it would be featured in an unprecedented international exhibition of Chinese artworks — and generate much-needed goodwill and cash.
Britain’s interest in the relics is unsurprising. Ever since the early 18th century, the mysteries of “the Orient” had exerted a powerful hold over the West’s collective imagination. The gradual collapse of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries afforded Western adventurers and collectors the opportunity to purchase, steal, or loot many priceless artifacts, but the Palace Museum’s collection of Chinese art, assembled by successive imperial courts over the course of centuries, remained unrivalled.
So when Western art collectors learned that the bulk of this collection had been transported from Beijing to Shanghai, they saw a golden opportunity. In 1934, a group of British art collectors proposed holding an exhibition of Chinese art in London. One of the leaders of this group was Percival David, a famous British porcelain collector who had been a consultant to the museum since 1929. David’s proposal received the support of the Oriental Ceramic Society and the Royal Academy of Arts, and in April 1934 the U.K. extended a formal invitation to the Chinese government through Guo Taiqi, the Chinese ambassador to the country, which was accepted.
Popular Chinese attitudes toward the exhibition were less positive, however. When the news broke that the Kuomintang (KMT) government had agreed to send some of the country’s most precious artworks to the U.K., many were livid. The government had said it was sending the collection to Shanghai to keep it safe. Now, it was to be shipped off to England? What if, like so many other works of art that had disappeared from China over the years, the items never came back?
In early 1935, 28 leading academics and cultural figures, including Xiong Fuxi, Zhang Yinlin, Liang Sicheng, and Lin Huiyin, co-signed an open letter opposing the plan. Among other reasons, they noted that the British had invited known “cultural thieves” such as the French sinologist Paul Pelliot to help select what items would be shown. “Pelliot and (Aurel) Stein bribed local Taoists at the Mogao Caves in (northwestern) Gansu province so that they could excavate and raid its unexplored rooms,” the letter reads. “They stole countless ancient objects dating from before the Tang dynasty, which are still held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France and the British Library.”
“In appointing Pelliot, Britain may have a hidden agenda,” the co-signers warned.
The KMT government made efforts to dispel these fears, but ultimately, the decision was already made and preparations would continue unimpeded. KMT officials were convinced the exhibition would be beneficial to Sino-British diplomacy, expand China’s international influence, and bolster the Chinese people’s pride in their culture.
Finally, after two rounds of screening, China and Britain determined the more than 700 relics that would be featured in the exhibition. Among them were paintings by famous masters Li Zhaodao and Huang Gongwang, bronzework from the Warring States period, and 352 pieces of porcelain spanning multiple centuries.
On April 8, 1935, the Chinese government carried out a preview of the exhibition at the Bank of China building in Shanghai. Tickets were pricy — many times what it cost to see a movie at most of the city’s theaters — and visitors were required to adhere to a stringent policy of no smoking, no photography, and “no pistols allowed.”
Due to popular demand, the Shanghai exhibition ended up being extended by almost a full week. As soon as it was over, on May 5, the packing began. Paintings and calligraphic works were carefully padded; while porcelain, copper, and jade ware were placed into individual decorative cases. Everything was then loaded into 91 specially made wooden crates filled with shavings and sealed with iron belts. They arrived in the U.K. on July 25, aboard the British ocean liner HMS Suffolk.
After a few more months of preparations, the International Exhibition of Chinese Art opened Nov. 28, 1935. It would run until the following March at the Burlington House of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. The exhibition was divided into 10 rooms. In addition to items from the Palace Museum, there were also 3,080 pieces from 240 public and private collections spanning 15 countries. Many of them had either been purchased by collectors or plundered by soldiers from the nations that had invaded China over the previous hundred years, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the United States, Russia, and Japan.
The exhibition caused a stir in Europe, attracting more than 420,000 visitors over the course of three months, and as many as 20,000 visitors a day at its peak. Not only did members of the British royal family and Cabinet visit, but also aristocrats from across the continent, including the king of Denmark, the king of Norway, and the crown prince of Sweden. After expenses, the Chinese government earned a profit of 9,000 pounds (approximately $683,000 in today’s money): A tidy sum for an otherwise cash-strapped museum.
Within a month of the exhibition’s end, the collection was on its way back to China. That didn’t mean its travails were over, however. In April, the ship carrying it was nearly capsized by choppy waters in the Strait of Gibraltar. Luckily, five British naval vessels came to the boat’s rescue and tugged it to safety, saving the treasures from a watery grave.
The relics arrived back in Shanghai on May 17, 1936. Later that year, the entire collection would be moved again, this time to the nearby KMT capital of Nanjing. It wouldn’t stay there long: When the Japanese finally launched their invasion the following July, it became clear the museum was once more in imminent danger. This time, rather than move it together, the KMT split the collection into three parts and evacuated it along different routes to the country’s interior.
Incredibly, even a full-scale invasion didn’t stop the KMT government from trying to send part of the Palace Museum’s collection abroad for yet another international exhibition, this one in the United States. In January 1938, when the palace’s treasures were being temporarily stored in the remote southwestern city of Guiyang, the U.S. government invited China to take part in the New York World’s Fair. Something, possibly a desire to recreate the glory of the exhibition in London, led China to accept the invitation. The Palace Museum selected and compiled a catalog of 265 items to exhibit, including paintings, calligraphic works, and ancient documents.
It was only after the fall of the central city of Wuhan that October, which cut off the route along which the relics were to be transported, when the country abandoned the plan. The International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London thus remains the first and greatest exhibition of the Palace Museum’s treasures abroad.
The “War of Resistance Against Japan,” as World War II is known in China, would drag on for another seven years. During that time, the Palace Museum and its artifacts were constantly on the move, sometimes just one step ahead of the advancing Japanese troops. That it stayed intact throughout can only be put down to sheer good fortune. It was not until 1947, two years after the war’s end, that it would return to the KMT capital of Nanjing.
The Palace Museum staff, who had guarded the relics for more than a decade by that point, were delighted to have weathered the storm, and observers breathed a sigh of relief that nothing had been lost. Little did they suspect that the country’s treasures would soon be scattered once more.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Soldiers hoist a case from the deck of the H.M.S. Suffolk at Portsmouth, U.K., July 1935. Courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts)