From Qing Imperial Collection to Chinese National Treasures: On Adam Brookes’s “Fragile Cargo”

By Tobie Meyer-FongMay 15, 2023

From Qing Imperial Collection to Chinese National Treasures:  On Adam Brookes’s “Fragile Cargo”

Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City by Adam Brookes

BEGINNING IN THE SUMMER of 1989, as a freshly minted college graduate, I worked for a year as the translator in the painting and calligraphy department at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. One of my colleagues, an elderly technician who helped handle the paintings and delivered the mail, was called “Uncle Niu” by my co-workers. I was told that he had accompanied the collection from his hometown in Sichuan to Taiwan. Reading Adam Brookes’s book, Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City (2022), which describes the collection’s journey from Beijing to Taipei, made me regret not having asked Uncle Niu about his life experiences. But I was very young and did not know to be curious.

The year I spent at the museum was a special time in my life and in the museum’s history. Only two years had passed since the end of martial law in Taiwan. Busloads of students visited the museum on school field trips intended to teach them to treasure their Chinese heritage. To illustrate China’s place as a great world civilization, an exhibit hall spotlighted comparative developments in Chinese and world cultures on timelines illustrated with photographs of objects from the collection. The museum’s main lobby held a monumental bronze statue of Sun Yat-sen; the greatest masterworks of the painting collection went on display in late fall, timed to coincide with the birthdays of Sun and Chiang Kai-shek. A display on the second floor traced the dangerous wartime journey of the collection from Beijing to Taipei; the accompanying text proclaimed (inaccurately) that not a single object had been broken en route. The museum’s status in that moment was, in fact, a mark of that moment: as an existentially important repository of Chinese culture in a polity whose ruling party (the Kuomintang) still positioned Chinese heritage at the heart of its national identity. But the eminence of the museum and the treasures of imperial China that it houses, were, as Fragile Cargo shows, the product of a particular history. And, as this book leaves unremarked, the times have again changed, and with them also the meaning of the National Palace Museum and its incredible collection of Chinese art.

The book’s full title, Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City, reveals Brookes’s intent: to transmit to Anglophone readers the gripping story of the Chinese imperial art collection’s challenging journey in a perilous period. This story, suspensefully told, is one of men who faced extraordinary challenges with courage and a strong sense of purpose. Against significant odds, they managed to transport thousands of crates containing hundreds of thousands of objects—priceless porcelain, jades, bronzes, paintings, calligraphy, books, and documents—by boat, truck, and train, to three locations in China’s hinterland, thereby protecting them from the invading Japanese. In transit, the objects also faced threats like water, termites, flipped vehicles, careless handling, bandits, miscommunications, and enemy bombs. Over the course of this journey, the imperial collection metamorphosed into national heritage, a symbol of past glories and present-day political legitimacy to be protected and celebrated by those who would claim the power to lead. This transformation was not natural or intrinsic to the objects themselves; it was the product of wartime experience, global display, and political necessity. As these factors have receded from memory and dissipated in the context of Taiwan’s post–Cold War democratization and China’s increasingly assertive control over national heritage and history, the National Palace Museum and its collection have lost their symbolic centrality both locally and globally. Fragile Cargo focuses on how imperial artifacts under threat became national treasures, and especially on the people whose efforts ensured their survival. It misses, however, the opportunity to describe how the relevance of this collection has diminished due to the changed distribution of geopolitical power after the end of the Cold War.

Brookes builds on efforts by authors like Iris Chang, Rana Mitter, and Hans van de Ven to make Chinese experiences in World War II visible to Anglophone audiences most familiar with the fighting in Europe. He intercuts the stories of the curators responsible for transporting three batches of priceless artifacts across a devastated wartime landscape with a political and military history of the period. Some of the juxtapositions are striking: the objects barely escaped Nanjing in advance of the infamous massacre there (and indeed, 3,000 cases remained behind in that city); aerial bombs destroyed the university buildings in which they were stored in Changsha mere weeks after their departure for Guizhou. Readers follow the efforts of museum director Ma Heng and his three colleagues, Chuang Yen, Na Chih-liang, and Ouyang Daoda. Brookes (in an annoying tic, apparently to help Anglophone readers keep track) assigns shorthand descriptors to each of the curators. Thus, for example, Chuang is the “slender, bespectacled packing expert,” while Na is the “stocky, cheerful problem solver,” and Ouyang is “the strict, disciplined curator.” Chuang, Na, and Ouyang are each associated with one of the three routes traveled by the collection and with an artifact: the 10th-century painting Early Snow on the River, a work of porcelain from the Ming dynasty called the “monk’s cap ewer” due to its shape, and an unwieldy set of inscribed granite rocks called the “Stone Drums of Qin.” As with the men, two out of the three objects went to Taiwan. The Stone Drums and Ouyang stayed behind on the Mainland. Brookes is more interested in crafting a suspenseful narrative than he is in the objects rescued. It is not clear why Brookes selected these objects and not others to match with the men. But, given the wealth of options, how indeed would one choose?

The book begins with a brief prelude set in the Forbidden City: a present-tense account of a day in the life of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–96), who, more than anyone else, literally left his mark on the imperial collection both through his eclectic taste as a collector and his propensity for marking famous paintings with his gigantic collector’s seal. During the Qianlong period, the size of the imperial collection expanded exponentially. The court commissioned new objects, made to specifications by craftsmen at the kilns of Jingdezhen and in the great cities of Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Yangzhou. (On the kilns at Jingdezhen, readers may wish to consult Anne Gerritsen’s excellent and accessible study, The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World, published by Cambridge University Press in 2020.) The court also acquired eclectic objects from collectors around the empire and imported them from abroad. Brookes emphasizes the secrecy and exoticism of the Forbidden City, but, as in Europe, court styles and tastes had an impact across the empire.

The 18th-century Qing court developed a distinctively cosmopolitan “capital style” drawing upon the emperors’ Manchu heritage and Chinese imperial and literati traditions, as well as elements of European baroque introduced to China via the Jesuits employed by the court. The Qing imperial collection assembled under Qianlong thus included masterworks of imperial Chinese art. It also featured works produced by the court itself: celebratory scenes of Qing court events, imperial weddings and birthdays, and tableaux featuring Manchu soldiers on skates. The collection also featured vast quantities of curios, court furnishings, rare books, and technically demanding fusion concoctions including gaudy enameled porcelains depicting blonde shepherdesses in addition to the many portraits of courtiers, emperors, and horses painted by the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione. All these categories of things were part of the fragile cargo that made the journey suspensefully described by Brookes.

The scene-setting prelude ends with the decline of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century and the dispersal to Europe of items from its vast collections in the context of Western imperialist plunder in 1860 and 1900. Looting made Chinese treasures visible, desirable, and symbolic of both civilizational achievement and weakness in the eyes of the world. Memory of these episodes looms large, even now, in Chinese discourses of national heritage and national humiliation. Still, very large quantities remained in place, surviving the 1912 abdication of the last Qing (child) emperor and his expulsion from the Forbidden City at the orders of a warlord in 1924. Instead of appropriating the palace and its art collection for his own use, the warlord ordered an inventory and created the institutional infrastructure for a museum, which opened to the public in 1925. The men who carried out this inventory later packed and protected the collection during its perilous decade of wartime displacement. The museum in the Forbidden City made the imperial past, and the imperial art collection, briefly visible to the domestic (not yet national) public. Processes of rescue, curation, and display for domestic and global publics made the objects, gradually, into national heritage, even as the nation itself was very much a work in progress.

The (still partial) military and political centralization of the Republic of China during the Nanjing decade (1927–37) made the still new Palace Museum into a government institution, capturing it, at least provisionally, into the still precarious national project. In 1931, Japanese forces occupied China’s northeastern provinces, and in 1932, they launched an aerial attack on the city of Shanghai, killing many civilians and destroying the priceless archives of one of the city’s leading publishers. Informed, perhaps, by the memory of earlier episodes of looting, and certainly by the looming Japanese threat, in 1933, only eight years after the museum first opened, the treasures were packed, sealed, and ported out of Beijing, with their ultimate destination still unknown. Fragile and oversized items required special handling; the curators consulted with antique dealers and developed new techniques to protect and preserve their delicate cargo. As Brookes repeatedly demonstrates, decisions about how (and where) to send the objects were contingent, complex, and politically fraught. By the end of 1939, 16,727 cases of objects from the Forbidden City had been relocated via three difficult and dangerous routes to three sites in Western China. Under near constant threat from the war, the three curators conscientiously cared for the objects despite poverty and everyday operational challenges, even when the Nationalist government failed to pay them.

Brookes shows how international exhibitions during the war elicited sympathy for the beleaguered Nationalist government. The global gaze thereby contributed to the making of a national symbol. In 1935, under orders from the Nanjing government, curators selected 725 objects from the Palace Collection, then sitting in warehouses in Shanghai, for inclusion in an international exhibit of Chinese art in London. Rumors that the objects might be stolen while overseas gave rise to student protests, amplifying the collection’s status domestically as a national symbol. Over a four-month period, nearly half a million people attended the exhibit, including many dignitaries and international tourists who traveled to London just to see it. The press coverage was effusively positive, and it inspired, Brookes notes, a sympathetic, sentimental interest in China. Another opportunity presented itself in 1939 when Chuang again received orders to pack up two cases, this time for exhibition in the Soviet Union. The objects were shown alongside photographs depicting Chinese resistance to Japan. Again, the objects generated favorable press coverage eliciting excitement about Chinese heritage and sympathy for resisting Japanese conquest. Their return to China was delayed by three years due to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Brookes argues that by the time the war ended, the objects in the collection had become, due to such overseas exhibits and in light of their near-miraculous survival, symbols of political legitimacy and “essential, eternal Chinese-ness that could not be undone by war, time, or revolution.” Beyond the timeframe of Brookes’s book, international exhibitions and visitors continued to sustain the collection’s status as a repository of cultural authenticity for “Free China” during the Cold War. More recently, Beijing has monopolized the Forbidden City brand internationally with blockbuster exhibits focused on royalty, luxury, and craft deployed as part of its own soft power initiatives.

Brookes ends his book with the relocation of 2,972 cases to Taiwan after the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, along with two of the curators and the defeated Nationalist government. Ouyang stayed in China, eventually retiring as the head of archives in the Forbidden City. The weighty and cumbersome Stone Drums of Qin similarly stayed behind and were returned to Beijing. The last chapter extends the story to describe Director Ma Heng’s fall from power in the People’s Republic. Ma had watched his friends and colleagues leave for Taiwan, and he briefly continued in his leadership position, helping to reframe the Forbidden City as a site for patriotic education in New China. During the 1950s, however, in a tightening political environment, he, perhaps predictably, came under criticism and experienced pressure and humiliation. Removed from his position, he died of lung cancer in 1955.

The story of what happened to the collection after its arrival in Taiwan is not told by Brookes since it lies well outside his framework of its World War II rescue. Still, readers might find it useful to know that the political lives of these objects did not cease once they crossed over to the other side of the Taiwan strait. Indeed, they have remained objects of controversy right up to the present moment, in part due to the political baggage that they accumulated during and after their rescue from the Japanese. The current museum, a grand yellow and green structure in the faux imperial style, built with significant support from the United States Agency for International Development on a hilltop in a bucolic Taipei suburb, opened in 1965. Particularly after the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1966, the National Palace Museum became essential to Cold War narratives of “Free China,” with much fanfare about artifacts saved from the Communists. The heroic story of the miraculous journey celebrated in the exhibit on the second floor became canonical, the survival of the collection a near analogue for the survival of the Republic of China regime.

Since the end of the Cold War, the National Palace Museum has been a somewhat contentious symbol in Taiwan’s deeply partisan politics. As long as the government in Taipei claimed to represent “Free China,” the museum remained existentially important as a connection to national heritage and the Chinese past. With democratization, that past has been contested and the museum has sought, perhaps with limited success, to maintain its relevance. Exhibits featuring Taiwanese history were added, even as Sun Yat-sen’s statue was removed. Funds were allocated to build the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum, which takes the museum physically into the territory of the Democratic Progressive Party, and which, in terms of content, focuses on Taiwan in the context of more broadly Asian (not Chinese) civilizations (a move mirrored in recent history textbooks). When the Nationalist Party was last in charge from 2008–16, Mainland tourists came to the National Palace Museum in droves to see the famous jadeite cabbage and other lauded symbols of Chinese culture. With the rise in cross-straits tension and diminished interest in China locally, the galleries have been noticeably less crowded with visitors and more cluttered with technologically mediated experiences. In 2014, the Tokyo National Museum publicized an exhibition of objects from the “Taipei Palace Museum,” causing an embarrassing, and hastily rectified, international incident. Taiwan’s robust democracy has largely rejected Chinese heritage, which is now claimed, embodied, and exhibited internationally on terms set by Beijing.

Brookes humanizes the mythic story of the objects’ wartime rescue by making visible the many challenges faced by curators as they moved thousands of cases of objects through a war zone and then cared for them in remote sites in Western China until they could be moved east at war’s end. He shows that the war against Japan was followed immediately by civil war, and indeed, that China was at war, really, for nearly a century, from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th. He reminds readers that national symbols are the product of human effort and historical contingency; they are not inevitable or organic or timeless. The past becomes national heritage through human agency and always for present-day purposes. This of course raises the questions: Why this story? Why now? What is it about our current moment that turned Brookes’s attention to wartime China, leaving invisible its Cold War legacies and what has followed?


Tobie Meyer-Fong is professor and chair of history at Johns Hopkins University. Her research and writing emphasize the intimate and emotional effects of large-scale events at the individual and communal level.

LARB Contributor

Tobie Meyer-Fong is professor and chair of history at Johns Hopkins University. Her research and writing emphasize the intimate and emotional effects of large-scale events at the individual and communal level. She is the author of two books, Building Culture in Early Qing Yangzhou (Stanford University Press, 2003) and What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th-Century China (Stanford University Press, 2013), which deal with the Manchu Conquest and the Taiping Civil War respectively. She teaches, among other things, courses on the Cultural Revolution, women and modern Chinese history, nationalism in 20th-century East Asia, and architectural monuments in Asia.


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