David Barboza tells the extraordinary story of the Chinese Imperial collection in the New York Times:
“We had a rough idea of how things happened, but we didn’t know the details,” said Li Wenru, deputy director at the Palace Museum in Beijing. “But we knew it was a miracle that in wartime over a million treasures were moved 10,000 kilometers, on roads, in water, by air, and nothing was lost.”
The museum staff members who protected the artifacts on that 16-year odyssey, hiding them in bunkers, caves, temples, warehouses and even private homes, have all died. But some of their children were invited to participate in this year’s trip.
Zhuang Ling, 72, says his father, who had been a cataloger of the collection, was one of the staff members charged with guarding the imperial treasures. He recalls living and traveling with them as a child, in the mountains outside Chongqing.
“When the weather was good, they’d bring the paintings, calligraphy and books outside to give them some fresh air because it was too humid inside,” he said. “I could even see some of the landscape paintings.”
The collection was put together by emperors, mostly in the centuries between the Song dynasty (960-1276) and the brief reign of Pu Yi, China’s last emperor, at the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). After the Qing fell, the imperial family kept the treasures. (In 1913 the family offered to sell them to the American industrialist and collector J. P. Morgan for $4 million; Morgan died shortly after his staff received the telegrams.)
In 1924 the state expelled the imperial family from the Forbidden City, declared the collection national property and made it the foundation of a new Palace Museum.
But after Japan invaded north China in 1931 and threatened to move toward Beijing, the government, fearing the artifacts might be destroyed or carted off to Japan, shipped them, in more than 19,000 wooden crates, south to Nanjing, the new capital, in early 1933. Then, just days before the Japanese destroyed Nanjing in 1937, they were divided into three groups and sent into hiding along three separate routes. Some of the most valuable objects ended up here in Chongqing, the wartime capital.
Rival Museums Retrace Route of China’s Imperial Treasures (New York Times)