Through Fire and Flames: How China’s Palace Museum Survived WWII
This is part three of a series on the people who saved the heart of China’s Palace Museum from ruin. View the entire series here.
On Aug. 13, 1937, only a month after Japanese troops crossed into North China, the Imperial Japanese Army launched a separate assault on Shanghai. Just 300 kilometers from the battle, the Republic of China’s leaders fretted about the danger to their capital, Nanjing. Government offices weren’t the only things at risk: The city was also housing the Palace Museum’s entire collection, meaning thousands of priceless cultural relics were in danger of being bombed.
It was clear the collection would have to be moved. It would be the Palace Museum’s third cross-country journey in the span of five years — and also the most perilous.
This time, officials decided to split the relics up into three batches, each bound for a different city deep in the country’s interior: in central Changsha; along the Yangtze River in Hankou; and in the Northwest, in Xi’an. The Changsha shipment came first, in part because it contained some of the most valuable items — including those just back from an exhibition in London the previous year. On Aug. 14, just one day after the Battle of Shanghai erupted, it left Nanjing aboard the ferry Jianguo, which in Chinese means “building the nation.”
A week later, on Aug. 21, it arrived at its destination. After locating a temporary storage space in the basement of the Hunan University library, the then-director of the Palace Museum Ma Heng went hunting for a more permanent option. He eventually settled on Changsha’s Yuelu Mountain, home to the famous Autumn-Admiring Pavilion. Ma hoped to excavate the mountain, carving stone chambers where he could permanently store the relics.
These hopes were dashed on Nov. 4, 1937, when the Japanese launched their first of many airstrikes on Changsha. The following January, the Palace Museum relics in the city were once again loaded onto a ship and evacuated farther inland, first to the southern city of Guilin, then the southwestern city of Guiyang, almost 1,500 kilometers from Nanjing.
It proved a wise decision. Just three months later, Changsha was bombed by Japanese troops for the fourth time. The Hunan University library was completely destroyed.
The second shipment, bound for Hankou — near the central city of Wuhan — was the largest. Spread across more than 9,300 crates of relics were treasures ranging from gifts given to Chinese emperors by their Western counterparts in the 17th and 18th centuries, to Qing dynasty palace records and items from the Summer Palace — some of the few left in China after European troops sacked the palace in the 19th century.
On Nov. 20, 1937, two relic-laden ferries set sail from Nanjing, heading up the Yangtze toward Hankou. Within weeks, however, both Shanghai and Nanjing had fallen, and the ships were ordered to bypass the city and steam far upriver to the mountainous southwestern city of Chongqing.
Yet the Japanese advance continued, and in the spring of 1938, Chongqing also came under Japanese air attack. To keep the relics safe, they were evacuated yet again, even farther inland to Mount Emei and Leshan in southwestern Sichuan province.
On such short notice, organizers were only able to hire wooden boats for the operation. They worked around the clock, transporting the relics in batches. Even Leshan wasn’t safe, however: On Aug. 19, 1939, the Japanese bombed the city just as the boats were making their 10th trip, reducing much of the city to flames and rubble. Had the boats arrived a little earlier, their precious cargo might have been lost forever.
But of the three batches, the one headed north had by far the most treacherous journey. Comprising more than 7,000 crates, it left for Xi’an by train on Dec. 8, 1937 — only five days before the fall of Nanjing and the horrors of the Nanjing Massacre. After narrowly avoiding bombs in the central city of Zhengzhou, the train pressed past Xi’an and into rural Baoji, as far as the tracks would take it. From there the crates were transported by truck over the Qin mountain range to the city of Hanzhong.
Crossing the mountains meant daring landslides, snow, and the risk of car crashes, but it soon became clear that Hanzhong was no safer from airstrikes than Baoji. Just a month later, Chinese officials whisked the crates off to Sichuan, storing them near the second batch.
Even when they weren’t dodging air raids, the relics were still in danger due to the makeshift nature of their storage conditions. In 1943, a fire at an opium den in Emei nearly spread to one of the warehouses housing the artifacts — actually a converted temple — forcing museum officials to beg local police to knock down all the grass houses in the vicinity to keep the flames away.
When Japan finally surrendered in August 1945, Palace Museum staff breathed a sigh of relief. On Feb. 15, 1946, the entire museum staff, including both those who had escorted the cultural relics to safety and those who stayed in Beiping, reunited in the Forbidden City. There they recited the 1930 song that had become their anthem:
At the majestic Forbidden City, precious artifacts are gathered
Unparalleled in beauty, they have been admired by countless generations
From the plates of Yin to the receptacles of Zhou; from the paintings of Tang to the porcelain of Song
They are myriad treasures, with not a chip nor scratch
Who keeps guard over them but our team? Who protects them but our team?
The lines might be the best tribute to the individuals who kept guard over the collection on its 15-year sojourn. They may not have known how to shoot a rifle or defend China’s soil from invasion, but they could still protect its culture and heritage.
It was a festive occasion. Everyone there believed the relics had been saved, and that the collection would soon be reunited. But the merriment proved short-lived. Although the relics were briefly reassembled in Nanjing in late 1947, by the end of 1948 the country’s Kuomintang (KMT) government was in disarray. Between late 1948 and February 1949, as the reality of a Communist victory in the ongoing civil war set in, KMT officials hastily ordered the heart of the collection — almost 3,000 crates — shipped to Taiwan.
The separation was meant to be temporary, but it has persisted to this day. Zhuang Ling, the son of Zhuang Yan — who as vice president of the National Palace Museum in Taipei was one of the officials who had evacuated from the Chinese mainland with the collection in 1949 — remembers his father saying he had “one moment of solace and two regrets.” His solace came when he saw the 10 “stone drums of Qin” had made it through the 15-year journey unscathed. The first of his regrets was that the three calligraphic masterworks, also the namesake for Emperor Qianlong’s “Hall of Three Rarities,” had never been reunited. (Two of these paintings had been smuggled out of the imperial palace in the late Qing dynasty, and were later returned to the Palace Museum in Beijing. The third is in Taipei.)
Zhuang’s second and final regret was that he would never be able to accompany the relics in Taiwan back to the Palace Museum in Beijing, the city where he’d grown up, studied, raised a family, and immersed himself in Chinese culture and art. Today the Palace Museum’s collection is split across three cities: Taipei, Beijing, and Nanjing. But on another level, thanks to the hard work and heroism of people like Zhuang and his co-workers, it remains very much whole — with not a chip or scratch to be found.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Vehicles struggle uphill on a road between Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces. Courtesy of Huang Wei)