Sunday, October 19, 2003

'We packed up our culture in 2,000 crates'

'We packed up our culture in 2,000 crates'

Mao had his Long March. So did his Nationalist enemies - taking a precious cargo of ancient treasures to the safe haven of Taiwan. Jeremy Atiyah reports

Published: 19 October 2003

Beside the vastness of mainland China, Taiwan looks like nothing: a crowded, industrialised little island, famous for its production of computer chips. Chiang Kai-shek may have sought to build up Taiwan as a microcosm of China, but even he was not capable of decorating it with the Forbidden City of Beijing, or the misty crags of Guilin, or the mountains of Tibet, or the Silk Road oases of the western deserts, or the Yellow River which gave China its civilisation. Once the Nationalists had embarked on their escape, the territory of China would be utterly lost to them.

China's cultural heritage, however, was another matter. Elements of this were portable. And when the Nationalists left, they decided to carry it with them. The results of this decision can still be seen in Taiwan's National Palace Museum, which is by the far the greatest repository of Chinese art in the world today.

It is in search of those treasures that I'm here, rather than for anything else. Taipei is not an attractive city in itself. Grim, grey blocks line the streets. Flyovers and bridges stomp across the skyline. Even the President has his residence in the former Japanese governor's office, a tatty-looking brick building that no one has been bothered to replace. I find it hard to avoid the suspicion that a subconscious expectation of "return to the mainland" has not quite gone away.

But Taipei's art treasures will make up for all of that. I already know that the collection here derives directly from the collections of the Chinese emperors, who ruled their vast territories for more than 3,000 years. I step inside the National Palace Museum with a feeling of awe.

One of the first things I see is a bronze cauldron from the ninth century BC. And this is not some archaeological curiosity from pre-history. The man who made it (the Duke of Mao, from the era of the Western Zhou) is a historic figure. Inside the cauldron is a long inscription, the Duke's own words, written to his uncle, expressing opinions on how to rule and how to survive your enemies.

Such objects have been regarded as precious by virtually everyone in China's history apart from Chairman Mao. "The bronze and jade articles that give pleasure to the king," states a 2,300-year-old memo from the imperial archives, "are stored in the Royal Residence." Later, in the second century BC, the visionary Emperor Wu Di was also storing the calligraphy and paintings that pleased him. He even employed scholars to authenticate treasures newly excavated from Shang Dynasty tombs that were (then) more than a thousand years old. In the wise words of contemporary historians, the possession of such items was a sure sign that the mandate of heaven, to rule China, had been won.

What a pity that the history of this collection, from then to now, has been not a smooth process of accretion. In fact, the losses have been severe. During the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, for example, around AD 900, many of the scrolls were destroyed by fire and looting. But once the Song Dynasty had established itself, the collection was soon flourishing again. And it was in the reign of the great Emperor Song Huizhong, in the early 12th century, that the structure of the imperial collection as we see it today was set out.

Song Huizhong was an artist himself, and the inventor, I learn, of something called the "slender goat" style of calligraphy. It is hard not to admire him. "As long as there is painting and calligraphy," he once sighed, "a lifetime of one thousand years would not be long enough." He sent out scholars to scour the empire for surviving paintings from previous eras. The rigorous and scientific catalogues he drew up, of his own great collection, are still extant.

This is not to say there would be not be many more losses over the years. First came the Mongol invasions. And through the ages, emperors have been capable of flogging off paintings for cash, melting down precious bronzes and doling out jade ornaments as gifts. Then there were the secretaries and eunuchs who found cunning ways of stealing treasures. Thus were the collections precariously handed down from emperor to emperor and from dynasty to dynasty.

In the 15th century, a great imperial palace was erected in Beijing that came to be known as the Forbidden City. Many of China's treasures would be stored there for generations to come. And in the 18th century came one more great patron of the arts, the Qing Emperor, Qianlong. He spent his reign not only commissioning new works, but also cataloguing old ones. He stamped practically everything in the collection with his own seals, often inscribing comments alongside - in the most tasteful calligraphy, of course.

After Qianlong's death, times again became dangerous for the collections, as indeed they did for China as a whole. The emperors grew poorer, and more inclined to plunder their own treasures in the search for gifts. This was not the only threat: in a notorious incident in 1860, British and French soldiers ransacked the imperial summer palace outside Beijing, seizing a large number of precious paintings (some of which can now be seen in the British Museum).

In 1911, the Republic of China was declared. But Puyi, the last emperor of China, was permitted to continue living in the Forbidden City and it was during these years that there occurred some of the most catastrophic losses of all, not least those caused by a huge fire deliberately lit in the Forbidden City by discontented eunuchs. And Puyi himself sold off countless treasures to raise cash for his private use. Not until 1925 was this flow of losses stemmed, with the expulsion of the profligate Puyi once and for all. Museum professionals could at last be sent in to check the contents of the palace.

Inside, they found literally millions of items, including piles of ancient ceramics still in use as common utensils. On 10 October 1925, the Forbidden City, and all its contents, was officially opened as a museum. After 2,000 years it seemed that the trials and tribulations of the most precious creations of Chinese art had finally come to an end.

It was a false dawn. The next 30 years were to prove the most dangerous in the collection's entire history. In 1931, the Japanese attacked and, for safety, nearly 20,000 crates were packed up, and sent south to Nanjing and Shanghai.

For a while it seemed as though Nanjing might become their permanent new home. In 1937 however, the Japanese began a full-scale invasion of eastern China. Once again the treasures had to be removed, this time in a hurry.

Considering the exigencies of war, it seems astonishing how much time and money the Nationalists were prepared to invest in protecting the museum treasures. An old superstition seemed to survive, that the imperial collections represented the spirit of China itself; that their safety would confer legitimacy on the rulers who protected them.

Only in the very last days before the Japanese burst their murderous way into Nanjing were the last crates finally removed from the city. Their destination was China's south-west, far away from the Japanese advance, though different batches took different routes. Aged trucks and boats carried them through remote and difficult terrain. At times boats had to be pulled against the current, or boxes carried along muddy tracks. Some of the boxes were carried on foot over snow-covered mountains. Japanese bombing was never far behind.

In the autumn of 1939 the boxes arrived safely in Sichuan, not far from the great city of Chongqing, where Chiang Kai-Shek had established his government. And here in Sichuan province a young artist and designer called Suo Yuming first came into the employment of the museum. I know this because I am now talking to the man himself, here in the tea-room of the National Palace Museum.

He is a tall spindly character, now in his eighties. He got his first job in the museum as a painter and a designer; his work then was to help create imitations of some of the treasures, hidden in a small town. There was no bomb shelter. They just used to hide in a temple when Japanese planes came over.
After the war ended in 1945, the order came to pack up the treasures and transport them back to Nanjing, China's capital. For Suo, this was the beginning of an idyllic time. "In those days we never thought about politics," he says. "We enjoyed the feeling of victory, then got down to work." Suo was an assistant researcher, verifying the history and authenticity of each item. But his troubles - and China's - were not over. War flared again, this time between Chiang's Nationalists and Mao's Communists. And by 1948, the Communists were approaching Nanjing. Again, the Nationalists showed their attachment to the treasures. The order now came to remove them to the comparative safety of Taiwan.

The thought of packing up and moving for the second time in four years seems not to have depressed Suo. He supposed it would be a temporary move, as before. Many of the crates had not been unpacked since 1931 anyway. But they had just three ships in which to carry them. Only the most precious parts of the collection could be taken this time; less important items would have to be left.

Suo himself travelled in the last of the three ships from Nanjing, the Kunlun. There was supposed to be room in the ship for 3,000 crates, but in the event they were obliged to leave nearly 1,000 behind, in order to carry more men desperate to escape the Communists. By this stage, the selection process had become random - the dockworkers just picked up the first boxes they could lay their hands on. In some cases, sets of objects were thus separated from each other for ever.

Was Suo afraid? "No. The Kunlun was a military ship, and the Communists only had rifles." But his confidence was to some extent misplaced. Suo, like all of the departing Nationalists, was convinced that he would soon be returning. He could never imagine that he might still be living in Taiwan 55 years later. In the event he left behind a mother and a fiancée, neither of whom he ever saw again. But that is another story.

Right now all I can think of is a 1,500-year-old painting I've just been looking at, depicting two men on a bridge, a river, a barge, snowy trees, a wooden pavilion and the eternal misty hills of ancient China. People are such small and insignificant creatures, alone in a world of egrets and mountains. How does it feel to be buried in so much tradition? I shake myself and go to meet another member of the museum, the deputy director, Dr Shih. He is one of those elegant little Chinese men as quiet as a cat and with the distilled wisdom of 2,000 years of culture in his head. Does he worry, today, about the things that were left behind in 1949? "We would have taken it all, including the Forbidden City itself, if we could have," he smiles, sadly. "But most of the decisions taken then were the right ones. I don't complain."

He suggests that the mission to rescue the treasures from the Communists was a kind of Long March, comparable to Mao's. "It was a very holy, special, symbolic mission," Dr Shih says. "Any regime's legitimacy relies on a continuation of heritage. You also have to enrich your heritage, to prove you are a worthy heir."

Dr Shih tells me about the artists and professors - "the most important young intellects of China" - who
believed, in the 1940s, that they could create a new future for the fledgling Republic by lugging crates full of cultural treasures round China. They literally had 2,000 years of heritage in their hands. So highly did the Chinese Nationalists regard these treasures, that when the National Palace Museum opened in Taipei in 1965 - finally putting an end to 35 years of peregrinations - the director of the museum was a post that had ministerial ranking.

Dr Shih is anxious to remind me that he is more interested in the aesthetic aspect of the collection than in its political or symbolic aspect. But before I leave, he cannot help pointing out to me the bronze cauldron that stands in the courtyard at the front of the museum. "It is the ancient Chinese symbol of political power and legitimacy," he says, with a modest smile. I know what he means. The Communists may have won China, but they have lost her treasures. And for that, the Mandate of Heaven will never rest easy.

The Facts

Getting there
Jeremy Atiyah travelled to Hong Kong as a guest of British Airways (0870-850 9850;, and from there to Taiwan with Cathay Pacific. Return flights cost from £684 in November.

Being there
Places to stay include the cheap but cheerful Queen Hotel (00 886 2 25590489) at Chang'an W Rd, 226, 2nd floor. It is near the railway station and double rooms cost about £16 per night. Alternatively, the upmarket, central Far Eastern Plaza Hotel (00 886 2 2378 8888; at 201 Tunhua S Rd offers rooms from £150 per night.
The National Palace Museum ( is open daily, 9am-5pm. Admission is about £2.

Further information
In Taipei, the tourism bureau office (00 886 2 2439 1635; is at 280 Jungshiau E Road, 9th Floor.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Taiwan (£12.99) is the main guide-book. Visas are issued on arrival to visitors with UK passports.