The Emperor’s Treasures

Magic Carpet Journals takes you to Taiwan looking for the treasures of the Emperors who lived in the Imperial Palace in China’s Forbidden City.

Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Were you ever curious to find out what happened to the Chinese Emperors’ treasures? I found out when I visited Taiwan. If you would like to see them, they are on display in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. I was amazed to discover what-may-be the world’s foremost collection of Oriental art is to be found in Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. I had the good fortune to visit there this year and to learn the story of how this fabulous collection found sanctuary where it is now.

Bronze Vessel at the Tiawan's National Palace Museum. Picture courtesy of Lenora Hayman
Bronze Vessel at the Tiawan’s National Palace Museum.
Picture courtesy of Lenora Hayman
The Jade Cabbage, Taiwan's National Palace Museum, Taipei
The Jade Cabbage, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, Taipei

Most of these art treasures were originally the personal collections of the Chinese Emperors, and were kept in the Forbidden City for the pleasure of the emperors and only those nearest to them, for many centuries. They remained hidden in the Imperial Palace until the Nationalist Revolution caused the fall of the Ch’ing dynasty in 1924. The Committee for the Preservation of the Ch’ing Palace was formed. Upon the departure of the last Emperor P’u I, the Committee entered the Palace and began to properly categorize its contents. In 1925 they formally founded The National Palace Museum.

Fears for the safety of the collection rose following the Manchurian invasion by the Japanese in 1931. The Mukden Incident (or Manchurian Incident) further escalated fears of continued Japanese incursion south into China. As a result the government began moving the treasures to what were thought to be safer locations in the south of China. In 1933 they were moved to the southern city of Shanghai. For the next few years they remained there while special facilities were built to house them in Nanking, then seat of the Nationalist government. The move to Nanking took place in 1936. The Japanese again prompted the movement of the treasures. In 1937 they were evacuated to the western provinces of Szechwan and Kweichow, all the time keeping ahead of the Japanese War. There they remained safely hidden throughout WWII.

National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Chinese porcelin pillow, National Palace Museum, Taipei, TaiwanThe National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Chinese porcelin pillow, National Palace Museum

At the conclusion of the war in 1945 the collection was returned to Nanking with the Nationalist government of the day. Political instability soon prompted the government to look for a safer home for the treasures. With the return of the Island of Formosa or Taiwan to the Nationalist Government at the conclusion of WWII, Taiwan was chosen to be the next home of the marvelous collection.

They were next sent by boat to Keelung on the island of Taiwan. From 1950 – 1965 they were temporarily housed in Wu-feng Taichung while a new permanent home was built. After the nomadic conditions of the earlier years of the twentieth century, the Emperor’s treasures finally stopped their wandering and have spent their remaining years in The National Palace Museum, Wai-shuang-hsi, Taipei. The complex of buildings compromising the museum, were all built in traditional Chinese style, with green tile roofs and yellow wall tiling. Even while we were there this year, the site was undergoing renovation and expansion.

We were pleasantly surprised to find out the museum supplied English-speaking guided tours of their facilities. Imagine our amazement when the guide told us that she had lived in Coquitlam and worked in New Westminster, British Columbia (cities very close to our own,) for seven years before returning to live in Taiwan.

Porcellin hat stand in The National Palace Museum, Tiapei,
Porcellin hat stand in The National Palace Museum, Tiapei
Taiwan Chinese green vase, The National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
Chinese green vase, The National Palace Museum

For the next several hours, we wandered from one display to another, awestruck by the incomparable artistry to be found in the glass cases. Carved ivory, bone, wood and jade, calligraphy, paintings, ceramics, bronze, rare books and documents – so many fabulous works of art, I could not begin to list them all. Each piece deserved the time to study it’s intricacies and learn it’s history – but unfortunately our time was limited. However, one very special item was pointed out to us. They referred to it as, “The Mona Lisa” of the collection. It was a head of Chinese cabbage meticulously and delicately carved out of jadeite. (Jadeite is multicoloured jade – in this case white and green and is said to be harder than regular jade.) The piece shows intricate details, including two insects crawling amongst the leaves, a katydid and a grasshopper, which are meant to symbolize fertility.

The National Palace Museum, Taipei, TaiwanThe National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan
The National Palace Museum, Taipei, TaiwanThe National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Although an afternoon was allotted for our visit to the museum, it was far too short. There are so many, many wonderful treasures there to behold, one can only begin to appreciate their splendor.

The condition of these marvelous works of art is a tribute to the many people who assumed responsibility for the packing, movement and storage of each individual piece during the many years of wandering. The collection has continued to expand and now has in excess of 650,000 items. Only a portion of those items are on display at any one time, therefore if the opportunity arises, I will be happy to return to visit them again.. It was a rare privilege to view the Emperor’s treasures.

Article and pictures by M. Maxine George. Picture of bronze vessel courtesy of Lenora Hayman

Last Updated January 21, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster

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