Saturday, June 27, 2009

About the National Palace Museum

I guess there are a lot of people out there who don't know what 'The National Palace Museum', that was the subject of the video I had in the last post, actually is. So I thought I would explain.

Modelled on the original National Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the museum holds what is one of, if not the most comprehensive collection of historical art pieces in the world. It is a true wonderland for any Chinese historian. The complete collection contains some 720,000 pieces, of which only about 15,000 can be displayed at any one time. The portion of the collection on display is rotated every few months allowing about 60,000 items to be displayed in a year. At this rate it would take about 12 years to display the entire collection.

Some of the oldest relics date back to the Neolithic period and contain pottery pieces from the various regions of prehistoric China. The complete collection includes pieces from the whole history of China from the Neolithic, through the Bronze Age and the waring states period, right through the dynastic period.

In fact the history of the collection itself is almost as dramatic as the history it represents. First started during the Song Dynasty (960-1279} by Emperor Dai Cong, the collection was originally compiled in an attempt to control China’s art treasures. He sent his servants though out the Empire to confiscate any art works they could find, including sculptures, paintings, pottery, carvings, books and scrolls. The practice soon became a tradition among the emperors and over the following centuries as the collection grew it was periodically moved between the northern and southern capitals of Beijing and Nanjing, finally coming to rest in Beijing when Emperor Yong Le established the Forbidden City in the fifteenth century. The collection continued to grow right up until the Qing dynasty ended in the Sun Yatsen led 1911 revolution.

Through out the centuries the massive collection of imperial art treasures was only available for viewing by the emperors and their inner circle of consorts. However after Emperor Puyi was finally evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924 his palace was transformed into China’s National Palace Museum, and the treasures were made available for viewing by ordinary Chinese for the first time in 1925.

Unfortunately the National Palace Museum in Beijing only lasted for about eight years. In September 1931 the Japanese invaded North Eastern China, also known as Manchuria and set up a puppet state with the old Chinese Emperor Puyi at the head. By 1933 Chiang Kaishek and China’s ruling KMT party had become convinced that all out war with Japan was almost inevitable. The Chinese felt that the entire collection of art treasures falling into the hands of the Japanese was something that could never be allowed to happen. So the museum staff packed the finest pieces of the collection into 15,000 cases and shipped them south to Nanjing. A month later they were moved to a warehouse in Shanghai and then moved back to Nanjing in 1937, just in time to avoid the Japanese invasion of Shanghai.

The Japanese forces continued to press westward towards Nanjing so some of the treasures were moved south by rail to the city of Changsha in the Hunan Province and then west to the city of Guiyang. Finally the treasures were transported by truck northwest to the remote province of Sichuan. One truck full of books and scrolls fell down a ravine, however despite constant breakdowns and the rough journey along poor roads crowded with fleeing refugees nothing was lost, stolen or damaged. However the Japanese began frequently bombing the capital of the Sichuan province, so the cases were again moved to the even remoter village of Emei where the treasure was hidden in temples, warehouses and even caves until the end of World War II.
Meanwhile the remaining 10,000 cases were loaded onto a boat which set off up the Yangzi River just as the Japanese started their attack on Nanjing. The boat with its treasure on board remained moored on the Yangzi near the city of Chongqing until the end of the war.

In 1947 the entire collection was moved back to Nanjing and once again put on public display by December of that year. However again it was a short-lived display, as the communists had by 1939 defeated Chiang Kaishek’s army in the north and were advancing southward. Again fearing that the collection would fall into the wrong hands the KMT had it all packed up and shipped to the northern Taiwan port of Keelung. Unfortunately in their hast 700 crates were left behind in Nanjing.
Had the collection remained in Mainland China it is doubtful that much would have survived China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s. During this time the Communists set out to systematically destroy any trace of China’s history and old culture. All in the name of ushering in a new way of thinking.

The collection was finally put on display again in Taipei’s new National Palace Museum in 1965. Amazingly during the 32 year journey from the Forbidden City in Beijing to the Museum in Taipei not a single piece of the collection was broken.


Blogger 心血来潮 said...

why don't you go to see the real chinese national palace museum in beijing?

12:41 PM  
Blogger John said...

Because all the treasures are in Taipei..;-)

Seriously though. I would like to go and see a lot of things in Beijing.

6:17 PM  

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