National Treasure was two years in the making. Each of China’s nine major museums presents three national treasures in the show, including Beijing’s Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum, Nanjing Museum, and Hunan Provincial Museum.
To inject an element of entertainment into the show, well-known actors were invited to perform as “guardians” of the treasures, who present the legendary stories behind each item in a short performance.
In the first episode, the Palace Museum showcases three treasures: a stone drum, the painting A Panorama of Rivers and Mountains by Wang Ximeng and Large Vase with Variegated Glazes. The large vase, which dates to the reign of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) is the highlight of the episode.
Emperor Qianlong has long been mocked by netizens for his gaudy taste in porcelain, as he seemed to favour bright colors and complex designs. The show provides its own interpretation of the mystery of the emperor’s extravagant esthetics with a short play.
Qianlong, played by the actor Wang Kai, has a dream in which ancient artists as well as his deceased father Emperor Yongzheng criticize his vulgar taste in art. The emperor argues that this style will show the world the mightiness and prosperity of his reign. Upon waking, to further make his point, the emperor orders craftsmen to produce a vase made of the most complicated techniques in the history of Chinese porcelain. And thus, we are told, the detailed and intricate vase came to be created.
The story is fiction. But it amused audiences, and the photo of the Qianlong-era glazed vase later became a popular meme online.
Besides the entertaining performance about Qianlong’s vase, viewers were moved by the tradition of the dedication of museum workers in the legendary story of the stone drum.
The Stone Drums of Qin, which rank among the “nine greatest treasures of China,” are believed to contain the earliest known stone engravings of words. They describe activities such as fishing, hunting and warfare in the pre-Qin era, up and through the foundation of the Qin imperial dynasty in 221 BCE.
The show tells the story of one family who risked their lives to protect the stone drums from being seized by Japanese invaders during the second Sino-Japanese War (1931-1945). The Liang family, along with other staff of the imperial museum, set out on a 16-year odyssey of thousands of kilometers to escort 19,600 boxes of artifacts southward after the Japanese army took China’s northeast in 1933. Even today, the younger generation of the Liang family still dedicate themselves to preserving cultural relics in the imperial museum.
“The stone drum story moved me to tears. Our relics and museum workers have suffered so much hardship,” Internet user “Yaqi” wrote, adding that the legendary story of the Liang family and the stone drum should be made into a film.
The show was well received by viewers and earned 9.1/10 on the leading review website Douban. It has taken streaming site Bilibili by storm with 9.75 million views so far.
“Diligent and dedicated museum workers as well as the family that protected the relics from war – these great but nameless national heroes should be remembered. It is these moving stories that bring the cold relics to life,” says the most-liked comment on Douban.
“A very good program. Knowledge and entertainment are combined well,” another netizen, “Creamy Fang,” commented.