Chiang Kai-shek, who led the Republic of China (ROC) first in mainland China and then in Taiwan, was a strong supporter and guardian of China’s national cultural relics. He had a long history with the Forbidden City Palace Museum in Beijing. As early as 1928, he was one of the first 37 trustees of the Palace Museum. From about 1933, in anticipation of an invasion by the Japanese and the beginning of the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945), Chiang’s Nationalist Government began their relocation efforts in order to preserve as many of China’s cultural relics as possible.
In 1937, after the Battle of Shanghai between Japanese and Chinese troops, Hang Liwu, the secretary-general of the Sino-British Board of Directors, proposed that the national treasures in the Chaotian Palace in Nanjing be immediately relocated to a secure location. The next day, this proposal was approved by Chiang Kai-shek and Hang Liwu was ordered to take charge of the relocation operations.
During this time, despite having to spend an exorbitant amount of money on fighting the war against the Japanese invasion and under pressure from limited resources and logistical means, Chiang Kai-shek managed to deploy cargo trains to transport the national treasures from Nanjing to Leshan and Emei in Sichuan Province, Anshun in Guizhou Province, and a few other locations for temporary safekeeping.
After winning the Sino-Japanese war in August 1945, the cultural artifacts that had been scattered to various places across China during wartime were reunited at the Chaotian Palace in Nanjing. It was here, in 1947, that Chiang Kai-shek, his wife Soong Mei-ling, and son Chiang Ching-kuo would come to view the entire collection of priceless treasures when they were on public display. Chiang Kai-shek and his wife were immensely fond of Chinese antiquity and deeply cherished the educational value and the importance of China’s cultural heritage to the Chinese people.
After the Sino-Japanese War, sensing the imminent danger that the national treasures would be facing — the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists — Chiang made a decision to move the cultural relics from Chaotian Palace in Nanjing to Taiwan. This decision would prove to be the most significant strategic move responsible for the preservation of the 700,000 pieces of China’s national treasures from the cultural eradication that would later be committed by the Chinese Communist regime.
In the fall of 1948, Chiang Kai-shek and his cabinet members held a discussion on a plan to transfer the treasures of the Forbidden City to Taiwan. According to records, on December 31, 1948, Hang Liwu received two memos, one of which was from the Presidential Office via telegram. The memo indicated that Chiang Kai-shek had ordered the mobilization of naval ships to carry 3,000 crates of cultural relics to Taiwan; another memo from Zhou Xianzhang, secretary to Chiang Kai-shek, appointed Hang Liwu to be in charge of the relocation of the cultural relics to the South.
From December 21, 1948, to December 9, 1949, the national treasures underwent a total of five major relocations. Officials from the Forbidden City Palace Museum were ordered to protect the treasures during these turbulent times. Overcoming many difficulties in their arduous journeys, the mission safely delivered 380,000 artifacts and 300,000 rare ancient books to Taiwan.
On December 22, 1948, the vessel Zhongding was about to set sail with many family members of ROC government officials and 712 crates of the finest cultural relics escorted by guards. To make space for the cultural relics, many family members were persuaded by the Navy commander, Gui Yongqing, to give up their spots on the vessel. Even so, the vessel was so crowded that there was no space to rest. The escort guards had to sleep on top of the large wooden crates carrying the treasures. The strong winds and the violent waves during the voyage sickened many passengers onboard.
On January 6, 1949, the second shipment of cultural artifacts consisting of 3,503 crates, including 11,178 volumes of ancient books, were loaded onto the vessel Shanghai, which arrived at the Taiwanese Port of Keelung after five days of sailing.
On January 28, 1949, it had been drizzling non-stop at the Nanjing pier. Many family members of ROC government officials were trying to flee the communist regime on the vessel Kunlun, which was originally planning to carry 2,000 crates of cultural relics. Due to overcrowding, the ship could only load 1,248 crates.
Just before the voyage, Hang Liwu sent someone to load 4 crates of treasures, including Wang Jingwei’s three national treasures, one of which was the jade screen, a gift to the Japanese by Wang Jingwei, which was returned to the Nationalist Government after Japan lost the war. There was no space on board the ship, so the crew was forced to dismantle the office furniture allowing the 4 crates of treasures to be loaded.
Of all shipments, the delivery via the Kunlun was the most dangerous — the Chinese Communist troops frequently attacked the ship, which slowed down the voyage. Additionally, passengers noticed that the ship was sailing north toward Shanghai instead of south. This turned out to be because Captain Shen Yizhen was contemplating defection to the Communists with all the treasures on board. But he was quickly subdued. The risky journey took 22 days to reach Taiwan.
The last two transfer operations of the treasures were carried out by air in order to escape the ground attacks by the communists. On November 29, 1949, after the Communists won the civil war, two ROC aircraft carrying 38 crates of cultural relics from the Henan Museum took off from Baishiyi Air Base in Chongqing. Despite mechanical failure after taking off, the two aircraft managed to fly over Kunming and Haikou, and eventually landed safely at Taipei Songshan Airport. The air shipments were carried out by the commander-in-chief of the Air Force, Zhou Zhirou, under emergency orders by Chiang Kai-shek to rescue the national treasures at all costs.
The last flight took place from the Chengdu Xinjin Airport on December 9, 1949. The renowned Chinese artist Zhang Daqian rushed to the airport with his collection of 78 copies of the Dunhuang murals, but the plane was already over capacity so that none of the drawings could be loaded. At this critical juncture, Hang Liwu decided to unload his life’s savings that he was carrying with him in the form of gold so that the drawings could be fitted onboard on the condition that Zhang Daqian would donate the 78 drawings to the ROC government after he landed in Taiwan. Zhang Daqian kept his promise.
From Vision Times