Unburied Treasures

In his final days, legendary museum curator Chuang Yen had become something of a relic himself. He smoked an ornate pipe, and wore Confucian robes long after they went out of style. On his deathbed in 1980, he had one last regret. Twice in his 82 years Chuang had rescued the priceless collection of Beijing's Palace Museum from the ravages of war. After Japan invaded in 1931, Chuang led a caravan that spirited 3,000 years of imperial treasures to safety in southern China. As the Red Army rolled through the south in 1948, Chuang led a second, even more tortuous escape 800 miles to Taiwan, where he helped build a second Palace Museum. "My father felt he never completed his mission," says his eldest son, Chuang Shen, an art historian. "He died heartbroken because he was never able to take the antiques back to Beijing."

To the communists in Beijing, Chuang was a traitor who stole China's finest treasures. From exquisite 3,000-year-old jades to delicate 19th-century calligraphy, the art work remains to this day at the Palace Museum in Taipei, and Taiwan is not inclined to give it back to Beijing. While the young are forgetting they ever had a connection to the mainland, aging Nationalists on Taiwan see the treasures as relics of a glorious culture humiliated by 150 years of foreign invasions and communist rule. For them, Chuang is a hero. "We felt if we could show the world this bronze from the Yin dynasty," says Suo Yin-wu, 78, a Palace Museum worker who accompanied Chuang's final escape, "we could prove that we once had a great civilization."

Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek believed control of the imperial treasure gave him a kind of mystical authority to rule China. In 1933, as the Japanese advanced, he ordered the museum to move its collection to his capital in Nanjing. Serving as chief curator, Chuang had more than 13,000 wood crates packed with art and loaded on trains. There were engraved bronze wine vessels and bells dating to 700 B.C.; porcelain urns collected by Tang emperors; lacquerware snuffboxes used by Ming empresses; a jade cabbage from the last dynasty, the Ching. Rushing to evacuate, workers practiced art triage, hastily wrapping more than 20,000 objects in rough paper and leaving more than twice that number behind.

Like other upper-class Chinese who fled with the Nationalists, Chuang and his wife, Shen Ruo-hsiao, bid farewell to a pampered life. Shen was a languid beauty from northern Jilin who used to change silken qipaos, traditional high-collared dresses with a slit up the leg, several times a day. She had a retinue of servants, a cook, and a nanny for each of her four sons. More than half a century later, the crusade to save the museum collection seems to be the most vivid memory of her long life. Now 95 and nearly deaf, Shen stirs from a softly mumbling reverie at the mention of treasure: "We had to save the antiques!"

They made it to Nanjing. But by 1937, Japanese bombers had the Nationalist capital in a panic. The crates were shipped on amphibious landing craft up the Yangtze River to Wuhan and hidden in the university library. Again the Japanese closed in. Chuang ordered the crates moved to the remote southwest just three days before bombs flattened the university. Later, trucks laden with antiquities broke down on spidery mountain roads and flipped over when soldiers tried to push them into gear. "Not a single thing was broken," says Kao Jen-chun, 76, a retired museum bronze specialist. He and others came to believe a guardian "spirit" resided in the relics.

For five years starting in 1938, Chuang, his family and comrades lived in the dirt-poor town of Anshun, in Guizhou province, waiting for the war to die down. The antiques were hidden in deep caves behind a monastery, an odd place to begin cataloging the vast collection--but the emperors had never done it. The curators made up intricately drawn cards, showing even the varying thickness of the sides of a vase, which are still on file at the Palace Museum. Chuang aired out the ancient calligraphy scrolls and paintings to free them from damp, and taught his four young sons to cherish them. "My father played a game before we went to sleep," says Chuang Ling, the youngest son, now a prominent photographer. "He said the name of a painting, and you had to say who painted it."

For a time Chuang thought the crusade was won. After the Japanese defeat, he led the treasures on a triumphal return to Nanjing in 1948. Soon, however, the communists were on the march. Chuang feared the peasant leaders of the Red Army would not protect the art works, so he prepared to ship out with Chiang's fleeing troops. "If we leave these things to the communists," he told a colleague, "I will become the sinner of our country."

Panic disrupted the escape. Coolies carried the crates to the docks for pickup by Navy ships--which arrived late or not at all. Many of Chuang's own workers were communist sympathizers and tried to block his flight. As soldiers and refugees crowded aboard landing craft, thousands of crates were left behind. "You could hear the communist artillery," says Chang Yin-wu, a museum janitor now in his 80s who joined the flight to Taipei.

There the Nationalists presented the art as proof of their claim to rule all of China. They built a lavish museum to resemble the Imperial Palace in Beijing, and gave all visiting dignitaries a tour. Seen as occupiers by many locals, they filled textbooks with photos of old vases to instill in Taiwanese kids the idea that they are part of a greater China. "Every Chinese dynasty amassed the art works of the past to legitimize its reign," says Chuang Shen. "The Nationalists tried to do the same thing."

So would Beijing. On Taiwan, the collection escaped Mao's Red Guards, who smashed private antiquities collections in the 1960s and '70s. Even mainland scholars concede that now the art work is safer in humidity-controlled vaults on Taiwan than in cash-poor, theft-ridden mainland museums. The mainlanders can wait, but they demand the eventual return of the treasure. Outside the Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwanese tourists sound unwilling to oblige. "I reject Chinese values," says Shen Chiu-hung, 31, a teacher posing for snapshots with his small daughter. "But I want her to understand that this stuff is hers now--she can decide what she wants to do with it." Chuang's dream of reuniting Beijing with its lost treasures is fading by the day.