The collection, the odyssey of the objects


Forbidden City treasures survived 14 years fleeing war before being split between Beijing and Taipei

December 31, 2018

Many of the Forbidden City’s ancient treasures were evacuated from the Palace Museum in Beijing when Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China. The collection took to the road for 14 years, traversing some 75,000km. The harrowing journey preserved one of humanity’s most important artistic legacies

The Palace Museum in Beijing attracts the attention of scholars, researchers, writers and editors from around the world when it opens in October 1925. Many international universities make applications for academic research, and word of the collection’s outstanding beauty spreads like wildfire

The museum acquires an unparalleled reputation, and exhibitions organised overseas are a great success

But worldwide political instability and China’s domestic situation convince the museum’s curators – who know how vulnerable the valuables are to plunder – to hatch plans to safeguard them

On September 18, 1931, the Japanese empire uses the Mukden Incident — a staged bomb attempt on its South Manchuria Railway — as a pretext to justify a full-scale invasion of Manchuria

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The collection of treasures, which has survived despite centuries of looting and hostilities, is once again under threat from impending war

Fearing the Japanese army will march south and cross the Great Wall, Palace Museum director Yi Peiji decides to move a substantial part of the collection out of Beijing for safekeeping

Museum managers carefully select the most important and valuable artefacts for relocation the moment it is deemed necessary

An army of workers and experts embark on an exhaustive exercise in packing the artworks by category: porcelain, jade, calligraphy, paintings, bronzes, rare books, and other objects

How the treasures are packaged

The artefacts are packed into 20,000 crates

Japanese troops reach the Great Wall’s Shanhaiguan Pass, with skirmishes breaking out within the vicinity

Faced with the danger of Japanese troops reaching Beijing, the Palace Museum’s administrative council decides to begin the move south

The crates are divided into five batches and readied for evacuation

The treasure moves south

With a night curfew decreed, the heavy crates are moved from the Forbidden City on wooden carts under cover of darkness

The rattle of the carts can be heard nightly as they rumble through the Qianmen Gate to the Western Railway Terminal

They are then loaded onto a train heavily guarded by police and soldiers

The train heads south for Shanghai, far from the turmoil in the country’s northeast

The cargo is temporarily deposited in several warehouses leased to the French and British concessions in Shanghai. The transfer of these relics, in five batches of 19,557 crates, takes place over five months

In December 1934, the museum's administrative council approves construction of an air-conditioned and ventilated reinforced cement repository to store the treasure in Nanjing. Building is completed in August 1936

The crates are moved from Shanghai to Nanjing between December 9 and 22

The treasure moves to the west

On July 7, 1937, a battle breaks out at Beijing’s Marco Polo Bridge between Chinese and Japanese troops, triggering the second Sino-Japanese war. The Japanese army occupies the Chinese capital with ease and turns its attention south

On August 13, Shanghai comes under attack. The Japanese advance sees those responsible for the treasure in Nanjing panicking, and they begin evacuation the following day

First shipment (South route)
The first batch of crates is taken by boat across the Yangtze River to Hankou (Wuhan), then by train to Changsha. After a few months they are relocated to Guangxi. A year later the treasure is again moved, this time to a cave in Anshun, Sichuan province, where it will remain until 1947

Second shipment (central route)
In November, Japanese troops close in on Nanjing. Hundreds of workers hurriedly prepare the next batch of 9,369 crates to be taken to the port and loaded onto steamships bound for Chongqing

On the long journey, the treasure is stuck for months in Yichang, Hubei province, until the water level of the Yangtse River is high enough to be navigated. They then head to the Three Gorges and Chongqing, the capital of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government

By 1939 Chongqing is no longer safe, and the crates are ferried by small boats on a dangerous journey through rapids to Leshan in Sichuan province

On the final stretch, the boxes must be carried on the backs of porters

The third shipment (north route)
The evacuation of the remaining treasure begins in December, a few days before the Japanese seize Nanjing. The most dangerous and difficult of three evacuations begins with the transfer of 7,286 crates by train to Xuzhou

Some 300 trucks loaded with crates begin their getaway on long-forgotten roads

They cross the Qin Mountains through dangerous terrain, covered with mud and threatened with landslides on the Thousand-Buddha Cliff

A snowstorm leaves the caravan isolated and without supplies for several days. Finally, after being rescued by nationalist troops, they arrive at Hanzhong, in Sichuan, after 48 days

After only one month of tranquility, the government determines that they should move to another, safer place, Chengdu. Just after evacuating the Hanzhong boxes again, the Japanese bomb the place

The route to the Sichuan capital is arduous – the crates must cross rivers and be carried in boats that at times must be pulled manually

Once in Chengdu, the crates are taken to a temple on Mount Emei

During a decade of painful flight, not a single artefact was lost or damaged

The war ends with the surrender of the Japanese in August 1945. The entire treasure trove is sent to Nanjing in a process that takes longer than a year

The treasure collection is divided into two parts

The treasure is piled up in the Nanjing repository, ready to be returned to the Palace Museum in the ancient Forbidden City, when the bloody civil war between the nationalists and communists engulfs the country. Both sides claim the treasure as their own

In 1948, with Beijing and Nanjing about to fall to Mao's troops, the nationalists stationed in Nanjing plan their exit to Taiwan. They transfer the treasure remaining in Beijing to Nanjing, in order to transport the entire collection with them to the island

Faced with threats of an imminent arrival of communist troops, the nationalists manage to send only three ship consignments to the port of Keelung. It is midwinter and the journey is difficult in rough seas

Finally, on February 22, 1949, the last ship arrives in Taiwan

The nationalists only manage to take 3,824 boxes with them, much less than was transferred from Beijing when the objects took to the road. However, the nationalists managed to take a great deal of the most valuable objects

The collection is now divided in two. The largest number of valuables remains on the mainland and is returned to the Palace Museum, where the collection was originally assembled by emperors over several centuries in the former Forbidden City. In Taipei, the National Palace Museum is built to house the objects spirited away to Taiwan

Will the collection ever be brought together again?


The Palace Museum

By the South China Morning Post graphics team

The collection, the odyssey of the objects


Here are some of the awards that this graphic has obtained

  • Gold medal

    Wan-Ifra Digital Asian Media Awards
    2019 Edition

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

  • Bronze Medal

    Society For News Design
    Edition 40

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