'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
Jeremy Atiyah reports Taiwan
Beside the vastness of mainland
19 October 2003
It is in search of those treasures that I'm here, rather than for anything else.
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
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
After Qianlong's death, times again became dangerous for the collections, as indeed they did for
In 1911, the Republic of China was declared. But Puyi, the last emperor of
Inside, they found literally millions of items, including piles of ancient ceramics still in use as common utensils. On
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
For a while it seemed as though
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
Only in the very last days before the Japanese burst their murderous way into
In the autumn of 1939 the boxes arrived safely in
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
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
Was Suo afraid? "No. The
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
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
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
Jeremy Atiyah travelled to
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; http://www.shangri-la.com/eng/index.htm) at
The Lonely Planet Guide to