Gitta Sereny is a British journalist and frequent contributor to the London Times and Observer. She is currently at work on a biography of Albert Speer.
If and when the two China’s-the Beijing Communists and the Taiwan Nationalists-finally attempt to resolve their differences, one of the most sensitive issues they will have to settle is the future of the greatest collection of Chinese art in the world. fur thirty-three years now, some 600,000 works of art-among them the most important Song and Yuan paintings, the finest porcelains and jades in existence, superb bronzes, and much of the imperial library dating from A.D. 858- have been kept in Taiwan, beyond the reach of the billion mainland Chinese.
“They were stolen by that criminal Chiang Kai-shek,” assert the attendants in Beijing’s Palace, once the emperor’s Forbidden City, when asked about glaring gaps in their otherwise vast collection. “They were saved-first from the Japanese, then from the Communists” is the explanation volunteered by the smart young guides showing tourists around the dramatic, modern National Palace Museum, on the edge of Taiwan’s sprawling capital, Taipei.
Up to now, both sides have apparently preferred to keep a low profile about this touchy subject. Indeed, until recently, the Taiwan government has successfully kept the full story out of the popular Western press. One reason they have now relented must certainly be that there are only three men alive in Taiwan who were directly involved in the mission-all of them growing old. It is they alone who can recount for posterity the extraordinary odyssey of the thirty scholars and workers who for sixteen years, between 1933 and 1949, trekked across China, carrying with =them nearly 20,000 huge cases of priceless art treasures from the imperial palace in Beijing.
One-fifth of the treasures-reputedly the fine,;t-were shipped to Taiwan in 1948-49, when the Nationalists were driven out of the mainland. These now fill not only the spectacular National Palace Museum but also one of the most secure art vaults in the world-a long tunnel of several hundred yards, with many branches, dug deep into the hills behind the museum.
Beyond its unique historical and artistic importance, the collection holds a deeper emotional significance, one at the heart of the conflict between Taiwan and Beijing. fur these are, to the Chinese, the “crown jewels” of China. And symbolically, now, as for centuries past, whoever possesses them is the true ruler of China.
Two Hours to Pack
The tale of their rescue-or theft-as recounted by the three elderly scholars, begins on November 5, 1924 in Beijing, when the last Qing emperor, the eighteen-year-old Henry P’u Yi, was ordered by the provisional Kuimontang government to leave his palace, the forbidden City, at two hours’ notice. He and his retinue of 2,000 eunuchs, court ladies, and retainers were permitted only their personal belongings, all carefully searched for artworks that might be smuggled out, as other objects had been smuggled by the corrupt royal household in the twelve years since Yi had been deposed.
The next day-the palace now sealed and guarded by troops-a small group of university professors and students was ordered to begin the arduous task of sifting through the treasures amassed by the emperors over the centuries. Two of the youngsters who soon joined this group were Na Chih-liang, seventeen years old, a boy just out of high school, and Wu Yu-chang, nineteen, a college student. They have lived with the collection ever since.
“I didn’t really know anything about art when I joined the palace group,” said Professor Na recently in Taiwan. Now seventy-five,he is a wise and gentle man, one of the world’s authorities on jades. Today he lives with his family on the grounds of the museum, where he teaches and writes. Professor Wu,two years older, is a leading expert on bronzes and porcelains and now retired from the museums staff. “I think we were chosen because our teachers were on the palace commission,” Wu said. “It was quite a while before any of us was really trusted.”
The forbidden City, begun under a Ming emperor in A.D. 1406, was a maze of hundreds of buildings, palaces, and ceremonial areas, packed with literally millions of objects that had never been studied or even listed. The workers were organized into teams of five or six, each under a professor: three young students, a soldier, and a police officer. Security was ferociously strict. Photographs were taken when a group entered a room and again when it left, to check that every object was still in place. Workers wore overalls tied at the wrists so that nothing could be slipped into the sleeves. The team had to stay together at all times-even in the same corner of a room. After work, members thoroughly searched each other.
When the groups began, the treasures were dispersed haphazardly throughout the buildings of the forbidden City. Fragile ink-on-silk scrolls from the Tang and Song dynasties fluttered in drafty corridors, precious jades were strewn about, and Ming and later porcelains were stacked higgledy-piggledy everywhere.
After less than a year’s work, the teams were told that the palace would be formally opened to the public eleven days later, on the fourteenth anniversary of the revolution. “It was an impulsive decision,” Na remembered, “very premature. But by the evening of October ninth, lightheaded with exhaustion but exhilarated, we were ready.
“The day was cool, dry, and sparkling, as Beijing is at that time of year,” Na said. “It was an awesome event. Tens of thousands of people had waited in line all night, and they rushed in to fill every nook and cranny of the palace. They stood engrossed before the paintings-we pleaded with them to leave so that others could come. But you know, although hundreds of thousands came, not one single object was stolen or damaged. We should have realized then that the hand of God was held over these treasures.”
Beijing at peace-the golden period of the next six years that Na and Wu recall with deep nostalgia-was a miraculous place. “It was a city of virtue,” said Wu, “a place where people were kind to each other, where children and the old were cherished, outsiders were made to feel at home, and beggars had only to ask to be given.” Family life was close, secure, harmonious. “One knew from childhood where one stood.”
Trucks loaded with art taken from the Forbidden City, crossing a river between Hanzhong and Chengdu in 1939.
Only by understanding something of this way of life can one begin to appreciate the human and spiritual sacrifices made by the little group who were to be catapulted into sixteen years of nomadic life, dedicated to the safekeeping of the imperial treasures.
“All of this changed 1931,” said Wu, “when the a Japanese invaded Manchuria. Soon they were at the border only 50 miles from Beijing. The city was full of rumors of burning, pillaging, and rape.” Within days, the Kuomintang government told the palace group that the most valuable artworks must be moved south to safety, as quickly as possible.
“We were thunderstruck,” said Na.
“How could we select from these millions of treasures? How could we move them safely? Where would they go; who would go with them, and for how long?” In the end, thirty of the museum staff were chosen to go. “It was our duty, and our families’ duty,” said Na. “But I did have very mixed feelings about the treasures being taken away. I was a man of Beijing. How could it be right to move the things and leave the people?”
It took four months to make the selections. By then Wu, now twenty-six, had become keeper of porcelains and bronzes, and Na, at twenty-four, was keeper of jades. “We had spent six years with these objects,” said Wu. “We knew them intimately.” All the paintings, as the country’s most important cultural heritage, were the first to go. “But choosing was only the first step,” added Na. “We had to learn how to protect the treasures against breakage, moisture, even termites. Packing took a year and when we finished, in early 1933, we had 19,550 cases, each about two by two by four feet. ”
There were to be two convoys, each with two trains of thirty-nine sealed cars and each traveling one week apart, for security reasons. Na would be in charge of the first and Wu of the second. Only the museum staff and armed troops, who would escort the treasures from now on, would be on the trains.
“It was only when we began packing the trucks,” said Wu, “that I realized that I was leaving my family to face a war without me. We had to save the treasures.