Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Chinese Treasures

By Uncle Cheng

From now until March 25th if you wish to see some of the rarest Chinese works of arts, which were taken to Taiwan on the eve of Communist rule in China, you must go to Taipei. The National Palace Museum in the city has just completed a massive programme of renovation which has transformed the museum and enables much more of the priceless collection to be displayed.

So it is worth recalling how it happened that provincial Taiwan came to be the repository of so much of the priceless imperial collection. It is a tale of huge intrigue and great heroism which exemplifies the bitter disputes that raged between two divergent ideologies, Nationalism and Communism, as they battled to be guardian of the Chinese nation’s cultural heritage and hence its very legitimacy.

Incredible as it was given the vicissitudes of much of Chinese history nearly all the great imperial art collection, which had been mainly amassed during the early years of the Qing dynasty, had remained virtually intact and undamaged right up to the Republican era. It is also worth recalling the great irony that most important parts of the collection were assembled, not by the Han Chinese as we might suppose, but by the Manchu emperors, who were most anxious to establish and prove how loyally Chinese they were.

As is well known both Beijing and Taipei now boast their own palace museums although the Taipei one is called the National Palace Museum while the one in Beijing is known simply as the Palace Museum.

It was in 1925 that the Palace Museum in the Chinese capital first opened its doors to the public but at the time most of the items in the collection were without any inventory and it is thought that in those troubled times some items, though not many, were stolen by corrupt officials and made their way to collections outside China. Perhaps the last complete inventory before the modern era was the one conducted in 1816 which documented about 15,000 items of calligraphy and paintings alone that had been collected by the highly cultured Emperor Qianlong.

A major crisis for Beijing collection came in 1911 when the Emperor Puyi was forced to abdicate. When Puyi then became a puppet emperor of Manchukuo he took a substantial amount of the imperial art collection with him.

The collection faced further travails when civil war broke out across China in the 1930s. Worried curators then embarked on an extraordinary endeavour that saved the collection for the nation. They hurriedly packed the bulk of the Palace Museum’s collection into a staggering 20,000 wooden crates. These crates contained just about everything that could be lifted and easily moved. There were bronzes, jades, porcelain, paintings, calligraphy and rare books.

At first the crates were set off on a dangerous journey towards Shanghai from where it was intended to take them on to Nanjing, all the time closely guarded by the dutiful museum curators from Beijing. But as the civil war moved south towards Nanjing the bulk of the 20,000 crates had to be diverted for safekeeping to the nationalist capital of Chungking. Ultimately, only about a fifth of the 20,000 crates, that is some 4,000 crates, were taken by the Nationalists to their final base in Taiwan. It is the contents of those 4,000 crates which now form the nucleus of the Taipei collection.

Although the Taipei museum is home to only a fifth of the collection which the Nationalists took from Beijing, the curators and Chiang Kai-shek were careful to select some of the best artifacts for shipment to Taiwan, which is why many art experts maintain the National Palace Museum houses the cream of the imperial collection such as the large paintings of the early Tang and Sung dynasties.

However, if you go to the renovated Taipei museum, do not expect that you will be able to view the entire collection. For conservation reasons the museum never displays all its treasures at one time. This is because some objects, especially the early paintings are so fragile that they are only displayed for forty days every three years. To see everything you must return to Taipei every three years!

Another celebrated moment in the history of that part of the imperial collection which was left behind by the Nationalists came during the height of the cultural revolution. A group of Red Guards had broken their way into the Palace Museum raising fears that the art collection would be destroyed. In the very nick of time the then Premier Chou En-lai issued his famous directive “the Gugong belongs to the nation and to the people and must be protected”. Both the Forbidden City and the objects it contained were rescued.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that we owe the preservation of our nation’s imperial art collection both to the Nationalist Chiang Kai Shek and his ideological enemy Chou En-lai. The unhappy result is that the collection continues to be split between Beijing and Taipei.

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