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.