© 2023 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fragile Cargo' chronicles the quest to save China's Forbidden City treasures from war

The Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City in Beijing, 2022.
Ng Han Guan
/
AP
The Gate of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City in Beijing, 2022.

On the eve of Japan's invasion of China in the early 1930s, a group of museum curators at the Forbidden City in Peking (now Beijing) gathered together and asked themselves: What would happen to the country's vast collection of imperial art when the inevitable all-out war between Japan and China begins?

The question then prompted an odyssey that spanned 16 years — through the Sino-Japanese war and World War II. Some 20,000 cases full of imperial artworks were transported across China as war raged on. To avoid Japanese soldiers' attention, the curators carried the art on trucks, steamships, trains and even bamboo rafts.

The skyline is consumed with fire and smoke in Shanghai, on Oct. 27, 1937.
/ Associated Press
/
Associated Press
The skyline is consumed with fire and smoke in Shanghai, on Oct. 27, 1937.

This part of China's modern history — little known outside Asia — is the subject of journalist Adam Brookes' recent book, Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China's Forbidden City. He spoke with NPR about how he first heard of those who rescued the Forbidden City's antiquities, and reflected on China's absence from Western understanding of the history of the Second World War.

Author Adam Brookes first heard about the rescue of the Forbidden City's treasures from curators at Taiwan's Palace Museum.
/ Sam Kittner
/
Sam Kittner
Author Adam Brookes first heard about the rescue of the Forbidden City's treasures from curators at Taiwan's Palace Museum.

How did you come across this piece of 20th century Chinese history? And what prompted you to tell this story?

The story of the imperial art collections and their extraordinary World War II voyage is somewhat familiar to people in the People's Republic of China and in Taiwan. Superficial versions of it abound. For my part, I first heard about it more than 10 years ago via curators at the Palace Museum, Taipei, who often describe it during guided tours.

The story came as a real surprise to me. Even after many years of reporting on and paying attention to China, I had never heard of these curators who packed tens of thousands of wooden cases full of irreplaceable art and transported them thousands of miles up rivers and over mountain ranges through war-torn China under endless Japanese bombing. What an astonishing story!

A little research showed scant reference to this history in English. A little more research revealed that new primary sources were popping up in Chinese all the time, sources that brought the whole story alive — lots of granular detail surrounding the lives of the curators involved, detail of the finances and administration of the whole effort. It seemed the perfect time to use those new sources to attempt a full telling in English, and Fragile Cargo was the result.

Ma Heng, the central figure in this odyssey, is portrayed in your book as a hero. Tell us a bit more about this man — how significant is he? Is he as well known in mainland China as in Taiwan today?

Ma Heng is an enigmatic character. He's hard to grasp, though I've done my best to understand him as he is central to the entire story.

He was a wealthy Shanghai businessman and scholar who became a professor at Peking University in 1917. He helped establish modern archaeological practice in China, and his scholarship on early artifacts and inscriptions is significant.

He took part in the huge effort to catalogue the Forbidden City's art collections in 1924-25. He helped establish the Palace Museum in Peking in 1925 and became its director — reluctantly — in 1934. For 16 years, Ma Heng oversaw the packing, evacuation and transport of the imperial art collections across China to keep them from the invading Japanese.

I'm not sure I think of him as a hero, though his commitment to preserving the imperial collections can surely be seen as heroic. He was a retiring, thoughtful man, and I think wartime leadership of the museum, with its attendant dangers and stresses, was a huge burden that he never wanted.

Japanese infantrymen advance with rifles and grenades, leaping over barbed wire and preceded by an artillery barrage, in the Peking sector in China on Aug. 19, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Heavy casualties occurred on both sides, but Chinese losses outnumbered the Japanese five to one.
/ AP
/
AP
Japanese infantrymen advance with rifles and grenades, leaping over barbed wire and preceded by an artillery barrage, in the Peking sector in China on Aug. 19, 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Heavy casualties occurred on both sides, but Chinese losses outnumbered the Japanese five to one.

As I say in the book, his life, especially in his later years, is filled with painful ironies. Unlike many of China's intelligentsia, he chose not to leave for Taiwan in 1949. He stayed in the young People's Republic of China, only to suffer under the Communist Party's political campaigns.

In the early 1950s, the Communist Party initiated what it called the "San Fan" campaign, a vicious political movement intended to root out corruption in government and business, and to bring China's bourgeoisie firmly under party control. Ma Heng was taken away and held in an interrogation facility known as a cadre school for months. The experience traumatized and humiliated him, and he spent his final years in a state of withdrawal and depression.

These days, Ma Heng is admired for his scholarship and his leadership. His name is reasonably well-known among art historians in China, I think, though tellings of his life tend be a bit monochromatic, and routinely gloss over his fate at the hands of the Party. I think he is a prime candidate for a full scholarly biography. I would love to see one.

One of the artifacts being transported, known formally as "Jadeite Cabbage with Insects," is nowadays a must-see object at the Palace Museum in Taipei. How did this object end up in Taiwan?

Ah, the jadeite cabbage. It's a small, beautiful, intricate carving dating from theQing period. The colors of the jadeite startlingly mimic those of a head of bai cai, cabbage.

A jadeite cabbage is displayed at Japan's national museum during a preview of the "Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taiwan" exhibition in Tokyo in 2014. The carving is one of the objects taken to safety from the Forbidden City. Chinese Nationalists brought it to Taiwan in 1949.
/ Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images
/
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP via Getty Images
A jadeite cabbage is displayed at Japan's national museum during a preview of the "Treasured Masterpieces from the National Palace Museum, Taiwan" exhibition in Tokyo in 2014. The carving is one of the objects taken to safety from the Forbidden City. Chinese Nationalists brought it to Taiwan in 1949.

The anonymous carver has taken the most prosaic of vegetables, rendered it in the most revered of materials, jade, and made it sublime.

A curator in the Forbidden City, Na Chih-liang, wrote in his memoir that he first put the jadeite cabbage on exhibition in the Palace Museum in 1929. Na and the museum staff were bewildered at the public reaction to the piece: all of Peking fell in love with it, and came in their thousands to see it.

The jadeite cabbage was among the hundreds of thousands of objects and texts packed and evacuated from Peking in 1933 and taken to safety in China's far west for the duration of WWII.

Later, in 1948, Mao Zedong's victorious Communist Party was on the verge of taking power in China. Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan, taking with them what they could of their shattered Republic. Chiang ordered that China's gold bullion reserves should be shipped to Taiwan, and he ordered that many of the most important, irreplaceable pieces from the imperial collections should be taken to Taiwan as well.

Amid the chaotic, closing moments of China's civil war, curators shipped bronzes, paintings, porcelain, texts and archives, and the jadeite cabbage across the Taiwan Strait.

This exquisite little brassicaremains in Taiwan today. Hundreds line up to view it at the Palace Museum, Taipei, and the museum's restaurant will serve you delicacies made in its likeness.

This is also a story of World War II. In Anglophone literature and media, we often hear about events such as Normandy landings, but China's involvement in World War II isn't as well-known, despite it being a major part of the war in Asia. Why is that?

Chiang Kai-shek, after he had been presented with the U.S. Legion of Merit medal from Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of U.S. Forces in the China, Burma Indian theater of World War II, in 1943.
Anonymous / Associated Press
/
Associated Press
Chiang Kai-shek, after he had been presented with the U.S. Legion of Merit medal from Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell, commander of U.S. Forces in the China, Burma Indian theater of World War II, in 1943.

I feel strongly that, in the Anglophone world, our understanding of China's Second World War is thin and impoverished. We have, I think, a tendency to disregard depictions of the war that diverge from a set of highly polished, oft-repeated narratives that center the European and American experience and contribute to our romantic self-image.

Americans may be familiar with Pearl Harbor, the Normandy landings and Guadalcanal; I find that they are much less likely to have any inkling of the battles for Shanghai or Changsha, or the Japanese army's use of chemical and biological weapons, or that Chinese troops fought hard alongside Americans and Indians and British in Burma.

China's war is routinely excluded from our understanding of World War II, despite the significant role Japan's invasion of China played in heightening tensions between Japan and the US and taking them to war.

Perhaps as many as 20 million Chinese people died in World War II. The Republic of China, under Chiang Kai-shek's troubled leadership, was the only nation-state in East Asia to hold out against Japan, and it did so in the most extreme and unlikely circumstances.

Lately, historians have done superb work on China's war, and many have taken great pains to present it in English for the general reader; books such as Rana Mitter's China's War With Japan, Peter Harmsen's Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, Robert Bickers's Out of China, and Hans van de Ven's China at War and many others lend us profound insight into what took place. I believe these histories can expand our horizons so that we might build a broader, richer understanding of what the Second World War really was, and to whom.

Many in China today still remember the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. Did writing this book provide you with a fresh perspective in understanding how the war shaped the Chinese view of their history — and how Chinese leaders use history to make sense of its place in the world today?

I think writing Fragile Cargo deepened my understanding of how China's history is written and rewritten to serve the purposes of the writers.

China's war against Japan was fought in very large part by the soldiers of the Republic of China, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party, the KMT. But on taking power in 1949, Mao's Communist Party wrote its own war history.

In the Party-approved version, the Chinese Communist Party led and won the war against Japan. Old Nationalist soldiers were silenced and even persecuted, their wartime experiences relentlessly downplayed. Ma Heng's own son, who served as an officer in Chiang Kai-shek's army, spent 20 years in a labor camp.

Then, in the 1990s and 2000s, scholarship inside and outside China began to rewrite World War II once again, turning our understanding back towards the enormous war effort made by Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT, and examining how much the Communist Party really contributed to victory.

In today's China under Xi Jinping, things have tightened up considerably. Xi has made very clear that the only acceptable version of China's history is that written by the Party. Questioning the Party's role in fighting the Japanese, or any act carried out by a "revolutionary martyr," may be deemed "historical nihilism" and land the writer in deep trouble, even in prison. So our understanding of China's war remains very unsettled.

Nonetheless, if we want to develop any insight into the Chinese Communist Party — to understand the stories it tells itself about itself, and to grasp how it sees its place in history — we must have some sort of grounding in China's World War II experience. In his book China's Good War, Rana Mitter writes that World War II "provides for China, as it does for the other allied belligerent nations, an opportunity to portray the nation as both strong and victorious, as well as morally virtuous." War memory, he argues, affords the Party a means to embed a new nationalism in Chinese public life that can subsume revolution as the nation's central purpose.

I think we use war memory for national and political purposes. In our literature and movies and museums, we sort of dream World War II into whatever we want it to be. And China does the same.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Vincent Ni
Vincent Ni is the Asia Editor at NPR, where he leads a team of Asia-based correspondents whose reporting spans from Afghanistan to Japan, and across all NPR platforms.
Related Content