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Public Museums, Private Collectors

While China’s emperors attempted to buy up all the antiques and art they could find, many of the royal treasures we can still see today came from the private collections of wealthy individuals

By Song Yimin Updated Sept.1

An imperial jade seal of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty, the Palace Museum, Beijing

One of China’s most famous imperial concubines was Feng Yuan, who lived during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE). She became a consort of Emperor Yuan in 47 BCE, the second year of his rule. One day, the emperor and his concubines were watching animal baiting. Suddenly a black bear jumped out of the enclosure and attacked the spectators. The emperor and his other consorts fled, but Feng Yuan did not. She stood right in front of the bear as two guards tried to stop it with their long spears. She told the emperor that she did this to defend him, because she thought a fierce beast would stop attacking once they had caught one person. The emperor was grateful, and favored her more than ever. The event is in historical records of that time.  

This scene is depicted in an ancient Chinese painting of the event, done some 400 years later during the Eastern Jin Dynasty by artist Gu Kaizhi. The silk scroll painting shows Feng fearlessly facing the bear as others slink away. It is part of a 12-part series, each about a woman known for her virtue. The illustrations were inspired by an earlier text on the model behavior for women of the imperial court. Titled the Admonitions Scroll, it is the earliest Chinese painting known today.  

Gu was one of the greatest artists in China’s history. He paid a lot of attention to the demeanor and spirit of the people in his work, something that had a far-reaching influence on generations of Chinese artists.  

None of Gu’s original work exists. One of the two copies of the Admonitions Scroll still in existence is a reproduction by an unknown artist during the Southern Song Dynasty between the early 12th and late 13th centuries. It was recently on display at a painting exhibition from May 1 to June 25 at the Palace Museum in Beijing. All 55 exhibits were used to educate royal family members in ancient China.  

The other copy is an earlier, better reproduction kept at the British Museum done during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Two reproductions of another Gu Kaizhi masterpiece, the Nymph of the Luo River, are also part of the most precious collections of the Palace Museum and the British Museum.  

Between 1942 and 1945 during World War II, China, Britain and the US fought the Japanese army in what was then the British colony of Burma. Japan intended to make Southeast Asia a source of strategic supplies like oil and rubber. At the time, the road between Rangoon, today’s Yangon, and southwest China’s Yunnan Province was the only route by which international aid supplies could be transported to China. Later, Britain asked China to choose between the return of the Tang version of the Admonitions Scroll or being given a submarine equipped with the best technology of the time. The Chinese government led by the Kuomintang, who were struggling in the war, chose the submarine. The Tang version of the Admonitions Scroll remains at the British Museum where visitors can see it twice a year.  

A Song Dynasty reproduction of Eastern Jin Dynasty artist Gu Kaizhi’s Nymph of the Luo River, the Palace Museum, Beijing

Acquiring Collections 
The British Museum and the Palace Museum are the world’s largest museums by different standards. The British Museum’s collection holds over 8 million objects, more than any other museum in the world. The Palace Museum is built on an area of 1.12 million square meters, larger than any other museum in the world.  

Early collections at the two museums mainly came from private collectors. Sir Hans Sloane, an Anglo-Irish physician, donated his collection of 71,000 items to his country when he died in 1753, on the condition that 20,000 pounds would be paid to his heirs and a free public museum be built. The British Museum opened to the public six years later in 1759.  

At that time, the Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, was the residence of the emperors of the Qing Dynasty (1644- 1911). It was the 24th year of the rule of Emperor Qianlong of the Qing, China’s last imperial dynasty. He would remain on the throne for another 36 years.  

TV series about Qianlong’s life have been popular in China in recent decades, where he is portrayed as a ruler who enjoyed poetry and travel. It is true that he was fond of literature and the arts, and collected a lot of curios, calligraphy and paintings. He archived all his collections, stamping his favorite calligraphy works and paintings with various seals. For example, one of his seals read “Sanxi Tang,” which was the name of his study. Another seal bore the inscription “Father of the Emperor,” as he later abdicated the throne to his son. 
His obsession with collecting antiques and putting his seal on the ancient calligraphy and paintings in his collection might have been inspired by another enthusiastic collector. Nearly half of the Qing’s imperial collection of calligraphy and paintings came from Xiang Yuanbian, a wealthy man born in 1525 during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  

The scion of an extremely rich family, Xiang had no need or desire to work hard. He refused an official position offered by Ming Emperor Wanli. His only interest was collecting antiquities, calligraphy and paintings. He was rich enough that he bought up nearly all the precious antiquities that could be found in the most prosperous areas of eastern China, particularly in what are today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. One of his favorites was a seven-stringed plucked instrument with the inscription “heavenly voice” which was probably made during or before the 3rd century. Xiang loved it so much that he built a special museum, called the Tower of Heavenly Voice in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province to house the instrument and other precious antiques. The instrument now resides in the Palace Museum.  

Xiang spent all day in the tower appreciating his collection, or putting his seals on the calligraphy and paintings he valued the most. He once stamped 98 seals on one calligraphy piece. By the time Emperor Qianlong acquired it, there was no space left in the margins for him to stamp his own seals. So he stamped over the calligraphy.  

Xiang devised a special way to catalogue his collections. He wrote one character from the Thousand-Character Classic, a text used for children’s early education, on each calligraphy piece or painting he collected. Based on this system, Weng Tongwen, a prestigious Chinese historian who died in 1999, estimated that Xiang owned 2,190 calligraphy works and paintings. 
When Xiang died in 1590, the Ming Dynasty was already on the decline. It finally fell after a peasant-led rebellion and attacks from the Manchu army. Xiang’s descendants fled. The Tower of Heavenly Voice was destroyed in the chaos, and most of its precious collections were acquired by the Qing court. In total, the recorded imperial collection of ancient calligraphy and paintings amounted to 4,600 pieces. Xiang’s collection made up nearly half of the Qing’s royal collection of ancient calligraphy and paintings.  

Lost Treasures 
Many objects from the Qing court collections were lost in the early years of the 20th century. Puyi, the last Qing emperor, was only 6 years old when the Qing was overthrown by revolutionaries in 1911. He was allowed to continue to live in the Forbidden City, but he used his younger brother Pujie to smuggle and transport some 1,200 precious ancient calligraphy works and paintings out of the palace. He wanted to use the treasures to fund his planned restoration and his luxurious life if he was driven out of the palace. Eunuchs also stole some objects.  

Puyi was expelled from the Forbidden City in 1924, and as he had planned, he lived on the proceeds of selling some of the treasures he had taken from the palace. To avoid further losses, the imperial residence was turned into a public museum the same year, with a 21-member council elected to run it. The first president of the council was Li Shizeng, whose father Li Hongzao was a tutor of Emperor Tongzhi (1862-1875). Tongzhi’s mother Empress Dowager Cixi controlled the Qing’s politics for nearly half a century from 1861 till 1908. Cixi favored Li Shizeng, treating him as an honorary son, but he grew up to become a revolutionary. He had no interest in seeking an official position. He promoted the idea of reviving China through entrepreneurship and education. For example, he believed tofu represented the cultural heritage of China better than artifacts. He studied agriculture and chemistry in France and set up a company to make tofu. He used the profits from his tofu business to sponsor young Chinese people to study in France and offered them internships.  

But Li Shizeng did not have enough time to protect the antiques in the Palace Museum. He was forced to leave Beijing as he opposed the ruling government which was controlled by vying warlords. A lot of antiques were lost and taken abroad. Even utensils and tools once used by the imperial household in the Forbidden City were kept in two Palace Museums, one in Beijing and the other in Taipei.  

There were 5,788 museums in the Chinese mainland by the end of 2020 which received 540 million visits that year, along with hundreds of millions of online visits, according to the National Cultural Heritage Administration of China. Recently, Beijing announced its ambition to become a “city of museums.” Thousands of events, including an ancient painting exhibition with Gu Kaizhi’s Admonitions Scroll at the Palace Museum, were held around China between April and June to celebrate the 45th International Museum Day on May 18. 

Part of the reproduction of artist Gu Kaizhi's Admonitions Scroll made in the Song Dynasty, the Palace Museum, Beijing, May 1