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About the Palace Museum (Part Two)
- Jan 10, 2018 -

Collection Evacuation and Ensuing Division

Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese had annexed territory in China's northeast and proceeded to march on Beijing. With this looming threat, the Museum’s authorities decided to evacuate its collection rather than let it fall into enemy hands or risk destruction in battle. In the frantic time from February to May 1933, the most important pieces in the collection were packed into 13,427 crates and sixty-four bundles and sent to Shanghai in five batches. Another six thousand some crates were assembled from the Antiquities Exhibition Institute, Summer Palace, and Imperial College. In 1936, they were dispatched to Nanjing where a depository had been built and a branch of the Palace Museum was to be established.


On 7 July 1937, shots fired at the Lugou Bridge (also known as the Marco Polo Bridge) west of Beijing heralded the eruption of the Sino-Japanese War. Within a year, the Japanese had invaded most of eastern China. The treasures stored in Nanjing had to be moved again—this time by three routes to Sichuan, where they were secreted in Baxian, Emei, and Leshan. Only at the end of the war were they consolidated in Chongqing and subsequently returned to Nanjing in 1947. With the imminent victory of the Communist army south of the Yangtze River, the weakened Kuomintang began their retreat to Taiwan. From the end of 1948 to 1949, the Kuomintang selected 2,972 crates to be shipped across the Strait for storage in Taichung. The contents of these crates formed the collection of the Taipei Palace Museum, which opened to the public in 1965. Most of the national treasures remaining in Nanjing were gradually returned to Beijing, although to this day 2,221 crates remain in storage in Nanjing.

During this tumultuous decade of war and revolution, none of the treasures were lost or damaged, in spite of the incredible quantity of antiquities. This was largely due to the steadfast commitment of the Palace Museum staff, whose achievement in preserving these treasures was nothing short of heroic. Unfortunately, as a result of this long period of upheaval, some of the treasures were dispersed into various institutions. Over the years, the collection has remained divided. Today, many people still hope for the eventual reunification of the collection and the restoration of its comprehensive representation of Chinese traditional culture.

In the early 1950s, shortly after the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the Palace Museum staff was imbued with new determination and enthusiasm to restore the Forbidden City to its former glory. The Museum’s administration launched a policy of comprehensive restoration. Where previously the dirty and dilapidated halls and courts lay under weeds and piles of rubbish, the palace shined with a renewed vibrancy after some 250,000 cubic meters of accumulated debris were cleared out. In time, the crumbling palace buildings, repaired and renovated, once again displayed their original resplendence. All the tall structures were equipped with lightning rods, while modern systems were installed to ensure fire protection and security. Additionally, the maintenance of the surrounding moat has been a distinct government priority, particularly since the beginning of the reforms instituted during the early 1980s.


The collections of the Palace Museum originate from the Qing imperial collection and include ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, timepieces, jades, palace paraphernalia, ancient books, and historical documents. During the 1950s and 1960s, a systematic inventory was completed and redressed previous inaccurate catalogues. After the founding of the Museum in 1925, particularly after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the collection was further augmented in various ways. For example, many precious artifacts were salvaged from a muddled assortment of apparently worthless objects. After more than a decade of painstaking efforts, some 710,000 treasured pieces from the Qing palace were retrieved. Meanwhile, national allocations, requisitions, and private donations brought more than 220,000 additional pieces of cultural significance to the Museum. These acquisitions made up for the lack of certain aspects of ancient Chinese history in the original Qing collections and included colored earthenware from prehistoric times, bronzes and jades from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, pottery tomb figurines from the Han dynasty, stone sculpture from the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and tri-color pottery from the Tang dynasty. The ancient paintings, scrolls, and calligraphy added to the collections were particularly spectacular. These exquisite additions included Lu Ji's A Consoling Letter (Pingfu tie) in cursive script, Wang Xun's Letter to Boyuan (Boyuan tie), and Gu Kaizhi's Nymph of the Luo River (Luoshenfu tu) from the Jin dynasty; Zhan Ziqian's landscape handscroll Spring Excursion (Youchun tu) from the Sui dynasty; Han Huang's Five Oxen (Wuniu tu) and Du Mu's running-cursive script handscroll Courtesan Zhang Haohao (Zhang haohao shi) from the Tang dynasty; Gu Hongzhong's The Night Revels of Han Xizai (Han Xizai yeyan tu) from the Five Dynasties; Li Gonglin's Imperial Horses at Pasture after Wei Yan (Lin Wei Yan mufang tu), Guo Xi's Dry Tree and Rock, Level Distance Landscape (Keshi pingyuan tu), and Zhang Zeduan's Life along the Bian River at the Pure Brightness Festival (Qingming shanghe tu) from the Song dynasty. These pieces are all unrivaled masterpieces from throughout the history of Chinese art. Currently, the total number of works of art in the Museum's collection exceeds 1.8 million.

As unremitting as the attempt to recover lost masterpieces has been, the Museum continues to exert efforts to recover certain national treasures. Some of these works include Zhang Xian's Illustrating Ten Poems (Shiyong tu, Song dynasty), Nai Xian's calligraphy Poems Reflecting on the Past in the Southern City (Chengnan yonggu shi, Yuan dynasty), Shen Zhou's landscape handscroll After Huang Gongwang's Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (Fang Huang Gongwang fuchun shanju tu, Ming dynasty), and Shi Tao's ink bamboo Loudly Calling Yuke (Gaohu Yuke tu, Qing dynasty). The first two were spirited out of the palace by the last emperor, Puyi, on the excuse of bestowing them to his brother, Pujie. These two priceless works passed into other hands, and it was not until the 1990s that they were returned to their rightful place in the Palace Museum collection.

Development and Accessibility

Beginning in the 1950s, the Museum's existing repositories have been completely overhauled to provide humidity controls, insect proofing, and other safeguards for the preservation of the collection. In the 1990s, a new storehouse with a capacity of over 600,000 items was built and included advanced temperature and humidity controls and protections against fire and theft. In the 1950s, a workshop was established for the care of collection pieces. This workshop was expanded in the 1980s into the Conservation Department. The workshop and subsequent department continue traditional forms of craftsmanship and utilize scientific methods in the restoration of damaged art. Over the past few decades, the Conservation Department has attended to as many as 110,000 objects from the Museum’s collection and other public institutions.

In addition to continuously refurbishing the main courts and halls, the Museum has expanded the scope of exhibitions by opening new galleries to display bronzes, porcelain, handicrafts, paintings and calligraphy, jewelry, and clocks. Temporary exhibition galleries have also featured a wide range of thematic shows. Furthermore, the Museum has curated traveling exhibitions for museums overseas and hosted visiting international exhibitions. Since the beginning of China’s period of economic reform, an increasing number of exhibitions have been displayed around Asia and in Oceania, Europe, and North and South America. These exchanges have aroused great interest and esteem and played a significant role in promoting international understanding and cultural dialogue.

The Palace Museum's range of publications has created further interest in domains such as the Forbidden City’s history, architecture, and vast cultural holdings. The substantial body of published works includes Famous Historical Paintings in the Palace Museum Collection, Selected Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, National Treasures, Palaces of the Forbidden City, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, A Collection of National Treasures, and The Complete Palace Museum Collection (in 60 volumes). There are also two periodicals, namely, the Palace Museum Journal and The Forbidden City.

Although the Forbidden City used to be an impenetrable fortress, the imperial palace is now a public museum. The collection, displayed in gallery halls throughout the complex, is becoming increasingly more accessible with digital technologies. The Museum’s website, established in 2001, is dedicated to presenting a “Digital Palace Museum” by which the wealth of cultural heritage contained in the Forbidden City may be effectively spread worldwide.

With rich collections representing the broad spectrum of 5,000 years of Chinese civilization and the 600 year history of the Forbidden City, the Palace Museum has seen many developments since its founding in 1925 and looks forward to carrying on the legacy of the past for future generations. Now, as always, the Palace Museum is committed to the preservation of national heritage and the goal of serving as a model for museums around the world.