Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.07.30

Far and Widely Traveled Treasures from the National Palace Museum

On June 28, NHK broadcast a program entitled "Far and Widely Traveled Treasures." The treasures shown in this program were from the National Palace Museum of Taipei. I had seen the treasures several times before, but this time, I found them to be of interest from a different perspective than I had previously. This time I focused on the extent to which the Chinese prize their superb works of art and their awareness that they have the power to enhance China's image abroad.

The story of these artifacts goes back to 1935. That year, for 100 days starting in November, the International Exhibition of Chinese Art was held in London, where 735 artifacts from the National Palace were on display. Two years earlier, the Japanese Imperial forces had invaded North China, going over Shan-hai-kuan (Shanhai Pass) from Manchuria. The result was that the Chinese Nationalist Government was wedged between the Japanese and the Communist military forces. The Japanese government, based on the so-called Hirota Sangensoku (the Three Principles of Hirota), had exerted pressure on the Nationalist Party to wipe out the Communist military forces. The Japanese military was becoming more bullish and was determined to force the North China government into total obedience. For their part, the Communist military forces asserted "Ba Yi Xuan Yan," declaring an anti-Japanese movement to save the country; they pressed ahead with the Long March and with a commitment to a prolonged battle against the Nationalist force and the Japanese military.

Under such trying circumstances, it is quite amazing that the Nationalist Government was able to deliver such a large number of artifacts to London. They managed to have them shipped by the Royal Navy heavy cruiser H.M.S Suffolk. England had good relations with China, having previously assisted it in implementing monetary reform and introducing the silver standard to manage its currency.

420,000 British visited the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, all of which resulted in a kind of China frenzy. Fashion imitating the costumes of Song Dynasty emperors became popular, for example. The Exhibition was initiated by British collectors of Chinese art. It came about because Chiang Kai-shek asked the British Government whether the two governments could co-host it. According to an analysis by Dr. Anthony Best of the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Chinese government, in waging its fight against Japan, had formulated a strategy to engage in cultural propaganda.

At the same time, however, the Japanese Government had become alarmed upon learning that the Earl of Lytton, whose commission had investigated the Manchurian Incident, was involved in the exhibition. The Japanese Government complained to the British Government that this relationship was problematic, but the exhibition opened as planned. China's strategy produced just the results it had intended: according to Dr. Best, when the Sino-Japanese war began, an increasing number of British indicated their support for China.

The Palace Museum was established in 1925, 13 years after the Xinhai Revolution. By the end of the Qing Dynasty, many artifacts had already left China. Since even before the Museum's founding, the Nationalist Government had been concerned about such losses. When the Japanese Army went over Shan-hai-kuan, the Nationalist Government took no time in dividing the Palace Museum collection into five groups. It transported about 20,000 boxes southward, toward Shanghai. These preparations had begun immediately after the Manchurian Incident in 1931.

After the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, the artifacts that had been moved to Nanking from Shanghai were carried further inland via three routes, i.e., the southern, central and northern routes. Eighty crates that were transported via the southern route mostly contained the treasures that were on display in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London; they were moved to Baxian in Sichuan via Wuhan, Changsha, Guiyang, and Anshun. 9,331 crates traveled the central route, from Hankou, Yichang, Chongqing, Yibin to Anguxiang Lusoshan in Sichuan. 7,287 crates traveled the northern route via the Jinpu Railway to Xuzhou, then via the Longhai Railway to Baoji, and then through Hanzhong to Chengdu, and finally to Emei, Sichuan. Other artifacts that had been left behind in Beijing were later transported to Chongqing via Nanjing and then further inland, to Nanxi, Sichuan.

In the midst of the civil war in autumn of 1948, at which time the Nationalist Party forces were outnumbered, the Central Government decided send some of the collection to Taiwan. In three shipments, it shipped about 3,000 crates after the end of that year. These amounted to about 20% of what they had originally moved to Shanghai from Beijing. These artifacts were then put on display in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

The transport of the collection from the National Palace Museum in Beijing was triggered by a series of major events that decided the destiny of China. Planning ahead, the Nationalist Party Government moved the artifacts around. This must have involved a huge expense and a tremendous amount of manpower. The leaders who took these actions had considerable foresight but the Chinese public who supported their decisions also had foresight. This kind of a major operation could not have been carried out solely by decisions taken by a handful of leaders.

In those Chinese who protected the artifacts of the National Palace Museum in the face of adverse political conditions, one can sense passion and pride for their own culture, in addition to the strength of will that drove them to protect these works of art. During the many years of China's history, its system of government has undergone many changes, but its culture and its outstanding cultural traditions have remained enduring.

Furthermore, the Chinese believe that by exhibiting their superb treasures to non-Chinese, they will be able to improve China's image and win allies. In this context, the Chinese always have seemed to have been aware of the strength of so-called soft power.