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Palace Museums celebrate 90th anniversary

Thu, 1st Oct 2015
October 10 this year marks the 90th anniversary of the foundation of the Palace Museum in Beijing, the biggest home of Chinese treasures in the world. (September 2015)

The birthday will be celebrated both in Beijing and Taipei, home of the National Palace Museum (NPM) that was built in 1965 to house the more than 650,000 documents and works of art which the Nationalist government took to Taiwan in 1948/49.

The Beijing museum has 1.8 million items, including 603,000 ancient books and documents, 367,000 porcelain pieces, 181,000 pieces of embroidery and 75,000 items of calligraphy.

It was founded on 10th October 1925 in the Forbid-den City, the home of 24 emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. It covers an area of 1.12 kilometres and was built in 1420.

To mark the anniversary, the Palace Museum is holding 18 exhibitions this year, increasing the number of pieces exhibited from 10,000 to nearly 15,000. It plans to open to visitors five new sites, bringing the total area accessible to them to 65 percent of the whole palace. Among the items on show is a painting 44 metres long that shows ceremonies during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1661-1722).

It is the world’s largest palace complex and wooden architectural building, with 9,000 temples, halls and rooms. It is also the most popular museum in the world, with over 15 million visitors last year. Second came the Louvre with 9.2 million.

“I can barely take a day off work all year,” said director Shan Jixiang. “I have to constantly walk around the palace to scrutinise every corner. In charge of such a museum with such complex needs, rich history and intense attention from the world, you cannot expect to sleep well.

“About 28,000 manuscripts of poems written by Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) were found last year in the palace. They were discovered in an unmarked box. Who knows how many more astonishing secrets are hidden here?” he said. 

Celebrating with Jesuit’s paintings

Fung Ming-chu, director of the NPM, said it would hold a series of events to mark the anniversary, including some jointly with the Beijing museum.

“Ninety years are a long time for a person to live. It is a long time for a museum too,” she said. “I feel that it is a very important year. Every tenth year we have a celebration and a series of events. This year we have joint events with the Palace Museum, including academic seminars and other plans. We will have a joint exhibition of the paintings of Italian Jesuit Guiseppe Castiglione. He came to China at the age of 28 and died in China at the age of 78; he was buried in Beijing. He was an architect and painter. He was the first Western painter in China and mixed Chinese and Western styles.” 

The Palace Museum in Beijing is lending nine paintings, to which the NPM will add some from its own collection.

After working as missionary in Genoa and Lisbon, Castiliogne was sent to Macao in 1715. He later travelled to Beijing, where his artistic talents impressed the emperor, who invited him to become a court painter. He served three emperors and designed the Western-style palaces in the imperial gardens of the Old Summer Palace. His paintings are on over 40 Chinese stamps.

He later lived in Macao again, after the Pope’s dispute with the emperor over the Confucian rites led to the expulsion of the Jesuits.

He died in 1766 and was buried in the Jesuit cemetery in Beijing.

Mainland visitors have become an important part of the clientele of the NPM. With the opening of direct air links in 2008, mass tourism from the mainland to Taiwan has boomed. The museum is one of their priority sites; up to 30 percent of the visitors are from the mainland.

Birth of the museum

After the Xinhai revolution of October 1911, Emperor Pu Yi and his court were allowed to live in a part of the palace. To finance his extravagant lifestyle, Pu Yi – and his eunuchs – sold treasures from the palace.

To stop this and prevent him from returning to the throne, the new government decided to turn the palace into a museum. It expelled him and his court on 6th November 1924 and opened the new museum on 10th October 1925.

The early years were difficult. The museum was plagued by a shortage of funds and attempts by warlords to take it over.

In September 1931, the Japanese military took over northeast China and created the puppet state of Manchukuo. Then it moved into north China and threatened Beijing.

To save the best of the collection from possible capture by the Japanese, the government ordered the transfer of the best pieces to the south; it began in 1933.

It was the start of an extraordinary odyssey that was to last for 16 years. The government moved 13,491 crates out of the Forbidden City. The first shipment left the palace in the dead of night, under military escort, and was taken to Beijing railway station, where it was loaded onto 21 carriages.

The journey to Nanjing, the then capital, took four days, passing through Xuzhou, where a gang of 1,000 bandits had gathered; they had heard rumours of the shipment. The presence of armed soldiers on the train prevented the attack. 

The pieces were first stored in a Catholic church and company warehouses in Shanghai and then a custom-built storehouse in Nanjing.

In July 1937, when Japan launched its full-scale invasion of China, the government decided to move the artifacts out of the reach of the Japanese military. They were stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places in Sichuan and the neighbouring province of Guizhou.

Art pieces unscathed

During the eight-year war, millions were killed and injured and thousands of buildings destroyed and damaged. Miraculously, however, the art pieces survived unscathed.

“Some call this an act of God,” said Fung. “I prefer to say that it was the government that protected them. From 1933 to 1945, the museum was on the road for 12 years. During that time, the Japanese military launched its all-out attack. If the government had not acted promptly, the pieces would have been destroyed. Its intelligence was very accurate. Take the attack on Changsha (*گ(F) as an example. Pieces had been stored in the library of Changsha University. The government got word that an air attack was imminent and ordered a move of the pieces. When the attack came, the pieces had gone but many of the people had not gone.”

Another factor was the dedication of the staff who accompanied the pieces everywhere and slept close to where they were kept, be it in a cave, a temple or a school.

After the war, the pieces were transferred to Nanjing. Since it was losing the civil war, the Nationalist government decided to move the best pieces – in 2,972 crates, 22 percent of the total that had left Beijing – to Taiwan. They were taken on three ships at the end of 1948 and early 1949.

Rapid expansion in Beijing

In 1987, the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared the Palace Museum in Beijing a World Heritage Site as “the Imperial Palace of the Ming and Qing Dynasties”.

It is now in a phase of rapid expansion. In the 1980s, it built an underground warehouse of 22,000 square metres which can hold 900,000 pieces. Now it is building an additional 8,000 square metres which will be able to hold 400,000 more.

“It is unscientific to let different kinds of cultural relics be kept at the same temperature,” said director Shan. “We need a more advanced infrastructure with the best equipment. Our national treasures deserve dignity to live better.”

It is also building a new museum covering 60 hectares in northwest Beijing, 30 kilometres from the current one. It will display a large number of rare treasures that cannot be shown now due to lack of space, and safety concerns. It will also have a garden full of rare and exotic plants.

“Visitors will be able to spend a whole day exploring a Palace Museum surrounded by a large royal garden full of ancient and rare plants that were once owned by emperors,” said Shan. “It will be a different experience from the original Palace Museum, which is famous for its royal architecture.”

The museum is a victim of its own popularity, with more than 100,000 visitors on peak days during the summer vacation and the May Day and National Day holidays.

On 15th June this year, the museum introduced a daily maximum of 80,000; everyone must present an ID card or passport. “Control of the numbers is temporary,” said Shan. “We will be able to accept more in the future when more parts of it become open to the public.”

Currently, only 52 percent of the site is open. Shan said that this would rise to 65 percent later in 2015 and 76 percent next year.

NPM opens southern branch

The NPM is expanding too. On 28 December this year, it will open its southern branch in Tainan, in the southwest of Taiwan. This is its first new branch since the pieces arrived in Taiwan.

The Museum of Asian Art and Culture will show art not only from China but also from Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Items from the Taipei museum will be on display there. It involves an investment of NT$ 7.933 billion and includes a five-star hotel and tourism facilities.

“Many foreign guests are coming, including the directors of the Louvre and the Musée Guimet (in Paris) and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto” said Fung.

By Ou Nian-le in Beijing and Taipei

Photos by Xinhua

(Issue N. 30, Setember 2015)