Old Version

Delicate Odyssey

Treasure the Treasures, a play written and performed by staff at the Palace Museum, tells the tale of the 15-year odyssey of the imperial treasures after they were whisked out of Beijing to avoid being seized by Japanese invaders

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

Relocating nearly 20,000 crates of a country’s most valuable treasures – that span more than 5,000 years of history – on a journey of thousands of kilometers is a rare historic event in itself.  

As one of the greatest museums in the world, the Palace Museum, which was formerly the Forbidden City, possesses over 1.6 million pieces in its permanent collection, and every year attracts more than 20 million visitors from home and abroad. Yet one period of history of the imperial museum is not known to many – how the treasures of the museum survived from the Second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945) and subsequent civil war, and how over 19,600 boxes of artifacts were removed from Beijing, or Beiping as it was known at the time, on a 15-year journey across China. All without a single item being stolen or damaged.  

Eighty years later, in September 2017, a well-received play produced by the Palace Museum, Treasure the Treasures in English, and Crabapples Bloom Still in Chinese, presented this miraculous, yet almost forgotten odyssey. Written by Wang Ge, the deputy editor in chief of the museum-run magazine Forbidden City, the play is performed entirely by young members of staff from various departments across the museum.  

“Although they [the staff] seem unpolished and sometimes even clumsy in acting, this play is like a family letter which they wrote with genuine feelings,” the play’s director Mao Erdan told NewsChina.  

To the South 

The story of the Forbidden City as the Palace Museum began on November 5, 1924, when the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, Puyi, was expelled from the palace where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties had lived for 500 years.  

The new Republican government turned the royal palace into a museum, inspired by the Louvre and other European royal palaces. Founded on October 10, 1925, the Palace Museum collection consisted of 1.17 million pieces.  

In 1933, after the Japanese army had taken China’s northeast, officials and the directors of the Palace Museum decided to transfer the most important items in the collection to the south of the country to keep them safe from possible seizure by the foreign aggressors. 

The decision to move the national treasures to the south for safekeeping divided opinion at the time. Many argued that as the war intensified, moving the artifacts out of the Forbidden City would not only undermine the army’s morale but also lead to panic among the residents of Beiping.  

When news of the decision was leaked, staff in charge of escorting the collection received anonymous threats. Rumors circulated that if the collection were removed by train as planned, it would be destroyed by bombs buried along the railway.  

“They [the staff] have set aside their own safety to guard the treasures. Bullets, bombs, threatening letters, such threats occurred several times every day,” Yi Peiji, the first curator of the Palace Museum wrote in a telegram to Song Ziwen, the acting chief of the Executive Yuan, the Republic’s cabinet.  

The journey began at midnight on February 5, 1933. Soldiers armed with guns rode on the roofs of the train carriages that carried the crates. Over 19,600 crates of artifacts were removed from the Forbidden City to Shanghai in five shipments. The pieces were stored in a Catholic church in the then French Concession.  

After all-out war began, in 1937, as the Japanese military invaded Shanghai, the museum director decided to move the pieces again, this time to Sichuan and Chongqing in southwest China, out of reach of the enemy’s bombers. Over the next eight years, museum crates were stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places.  

Museum staff went above and beyond the call of duty. They guarded the pieces every day. A team was made responsible for each shipment and they did not leave the pieces unattended. On the journey to Chongqing, a member of staff from the rare books and documents department, Zhu Xuekai, sacrificed his life to rescue the artifacts. During the eight-year odyssey in the southwest, not a single piece was lost or stolen. 

“Staff had to deal with various severe situations. The enemies they faced were not only Japanese armies, bandits and bombers, but also humidity, termites and rats. Nevertheless, all the pieces remained unscathed,” recalled Zhuang Ling, whose father, Zhuang Shangyan, was in the escort group and later was appointed deputy curator of the Palace Museum in Taipei.  

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the journey is a miracle in the history of world cultural relics protection,” Zhuang Ling added. 

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the treasures were gradually moved to Nanjing, but their journey back to Beijing was prevented by the civil war. In 1948 and 1949, then president Chiang Kai-shek took about 20 percent of the pieces, 2,972 crates, with him to Taiwan, where the Taipei Palace Museum was built in 1965.  

Family Letters from the South 

The play Treasure the Treasures revolves around the story of a fictional character Gu Zichen, who is a member of staff of the Palace Museum in the escort group.  

In the chilly early spring of 1933, Gu Zichen bids farewell to his pregnant wife and parents to join the dangerous mission. Over a decade, Gu and other staff follow the escort route from Beijing to Shanghai and then to Sichuan. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Gu promises his wife and son that he will come back home soon. Yet in 1948, as the political situation changes fundamentally during the civil war, Gu, like many museum staff, gives up the chance to go home and instead escorts the treasures to Taipei. For the rest of his life, there is no way for him to return to his hometown to be reunited with his family. 

For years, Gu, who lives in Taipei, writes letters to his son in Beijing even if the letters cannot be sent. His son does not forgive him for breaking the promise to reunite. Not until the last moments of Gu’s life do father and son reconcile. The play ends with a scene in which Gu’s son travels to Taipei to see his dying father and finally the son truly understands him.  

“Gu is not just a single character, but an embodiment of the people of the Palace Museum. His story can be traced in the life of every participant who undertook the escort operation,” the play’s writer Wang Ge told NewsChina.  

Zhuang Shangyan, the former deputy curator of the Palace Museum in Taipei, was one such case. He escorted the treasures across the strait to Taiwan in 1948 and for the rest of his life, he never had the chance to return to the Palace Museum in Beijing again. “The greatest regret of his life was that he could not bring the pieces back to the Palace Museum in Beijing,” his daughter Zhuang Ling, who also followed the treasures to Taiwan, wrote in a memoir.  

“I am more like an editor than a scriptwriter,” Wang told NewsChina. Wang has worked in the Palace Museum for 17 years, and now he is deputy director of the museum’s exhibition department.  

In 2010, Wang started a research project called “Memory and Identity: the Southward Relocation of Cultural Relics of the Palace Museum from 1933 to 1949.” After researching the documents, books and memoirs of the participants who witnessed that period of history, Wang decided to put this miraculous journey on the theater stage and spent three years finishing the work.  

Wang not only depicts the trials that the museum staff go through during the southbound odyssey, but also portrays the suffering and resilience of the staff who stayed in Beiping. The Palace Museum continued to open to the public even after the Japanese military invaded the city.  

“Staff who stayed in Beiping to guard the Palace Museum suffered even more. It hadn’t been possible to remove a large number of treasures. During the war, the museum staff in Beiping continued to take charge of the daily operation of the museum but without pay,” the play’s director Mao Erdan told NewsChina. 

Dialogue Across Time 

In the eyes of Mao, the play is not only a reflection of a significant part of the Palace Museum’s history, but also, as he told NewsChina, “a deep dialogue across time and space between the old and young people who devoted themselves to the museum.” 
The 17 performers of the play all come from different sections of the museum. Jiang Longbin, who plays the protagonist Gu Zichen, works in the museum’s security department and Li Zhenzi, who plays Gu’s wife, comes from the materials and information department.  

These young amateur actors rehearsed in their own time after work. Playing the roles of staff from the museum’s past gave them a sense of connection with their predecessors of eight decades ago.  

The most unforgettable experience the cast had, as Li recalled, was when they rehearsed in the square in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony very late at night. Li found that the square was exactly the same place where the staff placed the crates of the chosen pieces in 1933.  

“The Palace Museum is quiet at night. The place we rehearsed was the same place where they passed. It seemed like we were conversing with our predecessors,” Li told our reporter.  

The blossoming crabapple trees in the grounds of the Hall of Literary Glory makes one of Wang’s favorite vistas in the Forbidden City. He uses it as a motif that repeatedly appears in the play and explains his intention in an interview with the Legal Daily.  

“Crabapple trees in the Forbidden City have a nature of calmness and steadiness. No matter how much has changed in the vicissitudes of time, the flowers bloom still,” Wang said.  

“They symbolize an earnest expectation, an unchangeable prospect, and a spirit that is deeply rooted in generations of devotees of the museum – they will devote their lives to guard national treasures and protect the culture in our veins.”