The Miraculous History of China’s two Palace Museums by Mark O’Neill
The Miraculous History of China’s two Palace Museums a new book by Mark O’Neill.
We meet Mark O’Neill at a restaurant in Causeway Bay for a dinner organised by our friend Albert Lin. It is a convivial presentation of Mark’s latest book, published by Joint Publishing (H.K.) Company, in English and Chinese.
This book makes indeed fascinating reading for all lovers of Oriental art who had always heard in different variants over the years the famed history of the Imperial Chinese collection. But with this work, so well documented and wonderfully written, most of the facts will be concentrated in a single oeuvre. And I must say that, after reading it, it makes wonderful reading which should not be missed!
On November 5, 1924, Emperor Puyi was finally expelled from the palace in which emperors had lived for 5 centuries even if he had been allowed to live there after the 1911 revolution. The Republican government removed the deposed emperor when it was discovered that he, the eunuchs and other court officials, were responsible for the widespread thefts within the palace’s imperial treasures. They then planned to transform it into a Museum like the Louvre and the British Museum in London. In fact, on 10th October,1925, the Palace Museum opened its doors in what had been the Forbidden City, in the centre of Beijing. It exhibited the treasures and art works of the Imperial family. It was a first time in China’s history and a result of the advice of intellectuals of the time, who did not want to see the treasures fall into the hands of warlords or politicians. Later, like a miracle, the Palace Museum lived through and survived the most turbulent period of China’s modern history.
During the war with Japan and the civil war, the pieces were moved several times over thousands of kilometres – but no piece was even damaged or stolen. Nor were they destroyed by fire, damp or insects. Finally, a portion of them arrived safely in Taiwan. The pieces were moved in the middle of the night, with a military escort. Soldiers armed with machine guns rode on the roof of the train carriages carrying the crates on their journey south.
From Nanjing, the crates were moved to Shanghai for safekeeping and stored in a Catholic church in the French Concession. The government later built a modern museum in Nanjing, the new capital, in which to store them.
In 1933, after the Japanese army had conquered Manchuria and was threatening northern China, the directors of the original museum, in Beijing’s Forbidden City, moved 19,600 crates of treasures to keep them out of the clutches of the foreign aggressors. After all-out war began, in 1937, the directors hid the pieces in southwest China. In 1948 and 49, then president Chiang Kai-shek shipped 2,972 crates to Taiwan, where he built the National Palace Museum in 1965. The Forbidden City Palace Museum now boasts 1.8 million pieces, including 53,482 paintings, 75,031 works of calligraphy and 159,734 items of copper, as well as 603,000 ancient books and documents, 367,000 pieces of porcelain and 11,000 sculptures, some of which date back to the Warring States Period (475-221BC). The museum in Taiwan possesses 696,000 pieces, including works of art, rare books and historical documents. Museums around the world compete to show exhibitions fom the two collections. Last year, the Palace Museum attracted 15 million visitors. The collection consisted of 1.17 million pieces, according to the first ever inventory, and the Palace Museum opened on October 10, 1925, the 14th anniversary of the Republic of China.
When Japan began its full-scale invasion of China in 1937, the museum directors decided to move the pieces again, out of the reach of enemy bombers. There were three major routes to the southwest provinces of Guizhou and Sichuan. Over the next eight years, museum crates were stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places.
After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the pieces were gradually moved back to Nanjing, but civil war prevented their return to Beijing. During the eight-year odyssey in the southwest, no pieces were lost or stolen, say Fung Ming-chu, director of the National Palace Museum, and her predecessor, Chou Kung-shin – a tribute to the dedication of the staff who accompanied the collection. Today there are two Palace Museums, one in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which are continually adding to their collections and sending exhibitions abroad. This allows people all over the world to marvel at the beauty of Chinese art.
It is a great miracle that no piece disappeared but Mark O’Neill has the answer explaining it. Having been part of the Emperor’s collection they were considered Sacred Relicts by the common Chinese, communists included, and this could explain why they were not stolen or destroyed. They were all seen as a sort of Holy Grail!
Mark O’Neill, born in London, was educated at Marlborough College and New College, Oxford where he graduated with a degree in English Language and Literature. He worked in Washington DC, Manchester and Belfast before moving to Hong Kong in 1978. He has lived in Asia since then, working in Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, China and Japan for Reuters News Agency and the South China Morning Post. He now lives in Hong Kong and works as a journalist, writer and university lecturer. He speaks and writes French, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese. He has settled down in Hong Kong where he works as an author.