REVIEW: Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City by Adam Brookes
The gripping true story of the bold and determined museum curators who saved the priceless treasures of China’s Forbidden City in the years leading up to World War II and beyond.
Spring 1933: The silent courtyards and palaces of Peking’s Forbidden City, for centuries the home of Chinese emperors, are tense with fear and expectation. Japan’s aircrafts drone overhead, its troops and tanks are only hours away. All-out war between China and Japan is coming, and the curators of the Forbidden City are faced with an impossible question: how will they protect the vast imperial art collections in their charge? A difficult and monumental decision is made: to safeguard the treasures, they will need to be evacuated.
The magnificent collections contain a million pieces of art—objects that carry China’s deepest and most ancient memories. Among them are irreplaceable artefacts: exquisite paintings on silk, vanishingly rare Ming porcelain, and the extraordinary Stone Drums of Qin, which are adorned with 2,500-year-old inscriptions of crucial cultural significance.
For sixteen terrifying years, under the quiet leadership of museum director Ma Heng, the curators would go on to transport the imperial art collections thousands of miles across China—up rivers of white water, across mountain ranges, and through burning cities. In their search for safety the curators and their fragile, invaluable cargo journeyed through the maelstrom of violence, chaos, and starvation that was China’s Second World War.
Told for the first time in English and playing out across a vast historical canvas, this is the exhilarating story of a small group of men and women who, when faced with war’s onslaught on civilization, chose to resist. Fragile Cargo reminds us of the enduring power of beauty in a world beset by conflict and violence.
When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was something I wanted to read. These impossible but true events are my catnip. And this is the kind of book I love, one that informs me and also makes me hurry to the internet to look deeper into a subject – or just search out images of the priceless art lovingly saved during a time of world destruction.
When the last Emperor of China left the Forbidden City, the arduous task of cataloging the immense art collection there – the product of centuries, millennia, of Chinese culture – began. In freezing cold temperatures, a legion of scholars, professors, and others worked to list and tag each item from the 2500 year old Stone Drums to delicate carved jade to painstakingly fired Ming red porcelain to beautifully painted silk scrolls to rare books to priceless calligraphy. From eras before China was thought of as one nation, these items carried immense cultural heritage and were irreplaceable.
But not long after the new Palace Museum was opened, those in charge of it realized that danger was coming and they would need to protect it from the foreseen ravages of war. With over a million listed items, there was no way to move it all so impossible choices were made with the best of the best being chosen. How to pack all this to protect the “fragile cargo?” Go to the still unpacked boxes of Imperial china that had been sent to the Palace. Tight packing, rice husks, and wads of cotton batting were used to bind everything so tightly that even while traveling over rough roads, up raging rivers, and across icy mountain switchback roads the items remained safe.
Moved, moved, moved, shipped around the world for an exhibit in London, shipped back in a ship that ran aground, moved, split up, moved to the Soviet Union for an exhibit only months before the German invasion, shipped back, moved again often staying just days ahead of Japanese troops or desperately trying to avoid Japanese bombers, the curators begged, borrowed, implored, and demanded the help of many to tote, haul, and carry the carefully labeled boxes to places of safety. All the while the country was in the throes of a vicious war that ravaged towns, cities, and rural China costing millions of lives.
The book is so much more than moving the collection though. It’s about the dedication of the museum staff as they shepherded the boxes, unpacked and checked the items, repacked the boxes, then moved them yet again. It’s about the sacrifices they and their family members made to this endeavor. It’s about the horrors endured by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion and then again as the PLA and the Republicans fought over what kind of nation China was to become after the war. It’s written succinctly and well with neither too little nor too much detail. I wish that the arc I read had illustrations of some of the artwork mentioned but after meandering through the websites of the National Taiwan Museum and the National Museum of China, I can see why the objects mentioned were deemed so important and saved at all costs. B+
NOTE – this book is being released on the 14th
Wow. To see such pieces would be astonishing. My first thought was whether everything survived the cultural revolution. Thanks for reviewing this book, Jayne. I definitely am interested.
@Darlynne: I had heard that many of the artifacts were taken to Taiwan because the fear was that the PLA would destroy them. In fact, the Revolutionaries didn’t actually do this. The main danger was during the war with Japan. Many times the artifacts (which got divided into three groups) were moved to what was thought would be a safe place and then moved again just before that place was bombed to smithereens. It’s a miracle so much survived.
Some of the items mentioned are pictured on this page. Look especially at the jadeite cabbage and monk’s cap ewer.
That jadeite cabbage is phenomenal, @Jayne!
The book sounds fascinating. Thanks for your review.
Thanks for reviewing this. It sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Also a likely birthday present for my sister, so double thanks. We both loved Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes.
@Kareni: It’s carved from one piece of jade, using the natural coloring. Did you notice the little insects on the top part?
@Elizabeth Rolls: Double yay! There’s nothing like finding the perfect gift for someone. ☺
I’ve heard of that de Waal book but haven’t pulled the trigger on buying a copy – mainly due to price.
Does this book feature illustrations and photos of some of the art that’s featured in the text?
@Steven: It has photos of many of the curators and historic photos of events (mainly of the Japanese invasion) but no photos of the art.