Beijing to Taipei: An Art Collection’s Wild Journey

One of my first tasks after joining StraitsJourneys was to update the About Us section on the website, and the below story, though it didn’t make the cut, has been stuck in my mind since.

26086524 - still life with chinese vase and fruit
Copyright: martateron

As preamble to launching a company devoted to deep travel, Judy tapped subject matter experts to show her and her family around the places they visited. In order to get a fuller experience at the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, she reached out to a PhD student of Chinese history to be their guide:

My father-in-law, who was traveling with us, is an avid collector of Chinese porcelain, and he asked the student, “Are those vases fake? Why didn’t Chiang Kai-shek take them to Taiwan?”

The history student responded immediately, “They are absolutely real and you’re right that the Kuomintang took many of our treasures. However, look at the placement of the peaches on the vases. They are not perfectly symmetrical. Chiang Kai-shek was extremely selective and would not have deemed these to be imperial treasures because of their flaws and therefore were left behind.”

Which, of course, begged the question: What was Chiang Kai-shek doing lugging art out of China? Stealing priceless antiquities, according to some. Rescuing them from destruction, according to others.

19th century Jadeite Cabbage sculpture housed in the National Palace Museum in Taiwan

After Japan invaded Manchuria on a false pretext in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government ordered the Forbidden City’s Palace Museum, the Exhibition Office of Ancient Artifacts, the Summer Palace and the Imperial Hanlin Academy to prepare to evacuate their most valuable pieces to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army. In total, the collection came to comprise of over 19,000 crates of artifacts and objets d’art. Between 1933 and 1945, the collection moved through half a dozen locales in China as the Japanese advanced inland.

Following Japan’s surrender in 1947, the collection was settled in a warehouse in the city of Nanjing, but the ensuing civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China prompted Chiang Kai-shek to move the cream of the collection (more than 600,000 pieces) to Taiwan by three ships. The story goes that despite stormy waters, every piece miraculously arrived intact.

National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan

Of the 13,491 crates of artifacts originally evacuated from the Forbidden City, nearly 3,000 remain in the National Palace Museum in Taipei today. Considering the breathtaking destruction of Chinese heritage wrought by the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, many claim Taiwan saved and safeguarded these priceless objects. On the other hand, there are instances such as when Zhou Enlai managed to successfully protect the Forbidden City and its collection from the Red Guards, so it’s impossible to say for certain how many of these treasures would have been destroyed had they been in China at the time.

Every historic event contains multitudes of narratives with multiple viewpoints. It’s good to be reminded once in a while that what we often believe to be the truth about history is just one side of the story.


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. Click here to register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.

Unless otherwise noted, all images are licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

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