Retracing the great escape

Beijing and Taipei celebrate the extraordinary wartime odyssey that saved 19,600 crates of China’s art treasures, seeding magnificent museums in both cities

Mark O’Neill
13 June 2010

In the middle of one night in 1933, the doors of the National Palace Museum (NPM) in Beijing opened – large trucks laden with art treasures moved slowly along the deserted streets, escorted by soldiers with guns at the ready, and reached the city’s railway station.

There they were loaded onto railway carriages; soldiers with machine guns were stationed at the four corners of each carriage. Before the sun rose and the people of the city awoke to their morning labours, the train had left the city, bound for Nanjing.

So began the extraordinary odyssey of 19,600 crates of China’s national treasures, across the northern plains and the Yangtze River and over mountains and rivers to Sichuan province in the southwest, where they were stored for the duration of the Pacific war, to save them from the Japanese military.

After the war, most were returned to Beijing. Some went to Nanjing, and Chiang Kai-shek took 3,284 crates of what he considered the most important pieces to Taiwan, where he built a new NPM on a mountain north of Taipei.

From June 3 to 18, representatives from the two museums are retracing part of this odyssey, travelling 10,000 kilometres from Nanjing and through four provinces and eight cities before finishing in Sichuan. Organised by the Beijing NPM, the event marks the 85th anniversary of its foundation.

It is a joint celebration of how, in the most difficult circumstances, China succeeded in preserving its cultural treasures from the threat of organised looting and destruction like what Nazi Germany inflicted on the territories it conquered in the second world war. They moved thousands of crates at a time the country was losing the war to Japanese forces, who were better equipped and had air superiority and could bomb them at any moment. The areas of southwestern China where the treasures were taken had no railways and poor roads, making their transport slow and hazardous.

This month’s tour also has a political subtext – Beijing wants to stress the common heritage of the two museums and persuade the one in Taipei to lend its pieces to the mainland – something it refuses to do.

The move of the items from Beijing was a major decision. After their occupation of Manchuria in September 1931, the Japanese army moved into north China, entering Shanhaiguan in January 1934. The museum director ordered that major pieces be stored in crates for evacuation at any time.

“After intense debate, the decision was made to move the pieces south,” said Wu Huan, a painter in Beijing and grandson of Wu Ying, an official in the NPM. “Some proposed moving them to Shanghai, others to Xian. Some opposed the transfer and made speeches in front of the gates. The newspapers reported the story and the issue was hotly debated all over Beijing.”

Fung Ming-chu, deputy director of the NPM in Taipei, said that the transfer was top secret. “The cabinet supported the decision of the museum’s management committee to move the main pieces, after the Japanese army approached Beijing. Some people opposed it, including many Beijing people who felt that the government was deserting them.”

Wu Ying was asked by his superiors to take charge of moving the first shipment. “Initially he was against it, saying that these were the treasures of the nation, the responsibility was too heavy and the problems too many,” Wu Huan said. “He proposed waiting for a while.”

Museum director Yi Peiji twice visited Wu in person and appealed to his sense of patriotic duty; so he agreed.

“The train consisted of steel carriages,” Wu Ying wrote in his diary. “At each stop, government officials welcomed the train, with soldiers on horseback and in vehicles on either side of the track. The train travelled at night.”

In the Xuzhou region, 1,000 bandits were waiting to attack the train; they were driven away by government forces the night before it arrived. “On the fourth day, we arrived at Nanjing and everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief. We could all take a rest,” he wrote.

But the debate among the Kuomintang leaders over where the pieces should be stored had not ended, with some advocating Xian and Luoyang and arguing that it would be a national shame if they were kept in a foreign concession in Shanghai.

While this debate raged, Wu Ying waited anxiously in Nanjing railway station, protected by 500 soldiers, aware of how insecure the crowded location was. Finally, after a delay of two weeks, Soong Tzu-wen ruled in favour of Shanghai. After a journey of three days, they arrived in the vaults of a Catholic church in the city’s French concession. Wu could breathe again and returned to Beijing.

In December 1936, the government completed a branch of the NPM in Nanjing, its capital, and the objects in Shanghai were moved to a new vault inside a Taoist monastery in the city. In the summer of 1937, after the Japanese occupied Shanghai and were moving on Nanjing, the government ordered the collection moved to Sichuan over water, via three routes. It was relocating the capital to Chongqing.

The first group, of 80 crates, went via Wuhan, Changsha, Guiyang and Anshun before arriving in Baxian. The second, of 9,331 crates, travelled by Hankou, Yichang, Chongqing and Yibin before arriving in Anguxiang and Loshan. The third group, of 7,287 crates, travelled via railway to Xuzhou and Chengdu to Emei.

The items were stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places in Sichuan and the neighbouring province of Guizhou.

During the war, the main task of the NPM officials was to protect and preserve the collection; they still managed to send 100 bronzes, jades, paintings and tapestries to an exhibition of Chinese art in Moscow and Leningrad. Their enemies were the hot and humid climate, robbers and Japanese air raids.

Between February 1938 and August 1943, the Japanese air force dropped 280,000 bombs on Chongqing, mainly in civilian areas, killing and wounding 200,000 people. The air defences were so weak that, during those 5 1/2 years, they shot down only 171 of the 12,000 attacking planes. These raids meant that the art treasures should not be kept in the urban areas that were targeted.

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, all the treasures that were relocated were shipped back to Nanjing. When it became clear they would lose the civil war, the Nationalists took the best pieces from the collection and shipped them to Taiwan. The rest were shipped back to Beijing, except for 2,221 crates that remain in storage at the Chaotian palace in Nanjing, while the Nanjing and Beijing city governments argue over their ownership.

In Taiwan, the pieces were stored in a vault in Wufeng, Taichung county, an inventory was made and comprehensive cataloguing done. In 1957, an exhibition office was open to the public. Chiang Kai-shek planned this as a temporary solution, until he could recapture the mainland.

By the 1960s, he realised that this would not happen and decided to build a permanent museum in Taipei. He selected a site on a mountain in a northern suburb. The museum opened in 1965 and is named after Sun Yat-sen.

“The main credit for setting up the NPM in Beijing must go to Sun,” Fung said in Taipei. “He supported the expulsion of former emperor Pu Yi from the palace and said it must be turned into a museum, saying that the assets belonged not to one family but all the Chinese people. Sun had lived abroad and seen what had been done in Britain and France.

“Those involved with the museum have a sense of mission. They identify themselves with the treasures and protected them with their lives. We have such elderly people in Taiwan who came with the treasures from the mainland. When they left they did not say goodbye to their mothers, because the transfer was a military secret. They were unable to return until the 1980s; they did not imagine it would be so long,” she said.

The last emperor, Pu Yi, was allowed to remain in the Forbidden City even after the revolution of 1911 that overthrew him. Unlike Britain, France and Russia, China let its monarch live after its revolution and even to go on living in his palace.

Pu Yi and his imperial court remained in the northern half of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, and were promised an annual subsidy of four million silver dollars by the new government. He was restored to the throne in 1917, and male residents of Beijing bought false pigtails in preparation for a new dynasty. But opposition in China was so intense that he remained on the throne for only 12 days – and the streets of the capital were covered with discarded pigtails.

He was finally expelled on November 5, 1924, together with his 470 eunuchs and 100 lady servants, because the government feared he might stage another coup. They wanted to stop the theft of precious objects from the palace by him and his followers.

So it was that, at the initiative of Sun and others, the Forbidden City became one of the world’s finest art museums.

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