Detail from Rafik Wahba, The Hall of Supreme Harmony, Forbidden City, Beijing, China, 2021 (Unsplash)
From Literary Review:
Adam Brookes’s thrilling new book tells for the first time in English the epic story of a sixteen-year quest by curators, archaeologists, scholars and politicians to protect the irreplaceable artistic treasures of the Forbidden City from the ravages of invasion and civil war. He has uncovered the kind of history deserving of a cinematic blockbuster. Approximately 250,000 priceless artefacts – porcelain, silks, paintings, bronzes – somehow escaped destruction by fire, water, moths and termites on a journey of 15,000 miles, being transported by train, boat, lorry, raft and carrying pole ‘up rivers and across mountain ranges, through famine and war’.
The story begins amid the turmoil of early 20th-century China, with fights over the ownership of the Forbidden City’s peerless collection. For centuries, China’s emperors had hoarded within the palace’s vermilion walls some of the most exquisite arts and crafts of the empire. By the end of the 18th century, they had amassed more than a million objects.
But the old imperial system suddenly collapsed in 1912, giving way to a revolutionary republic in which power was really held by regional armies. For another dozen years, the last emperor, Puyi, who had abdicated, continued to live within the Forbidden City and to treat its art as his personal property, smuggling objects out to sell to Chinese and international collectors to cover his household expenses. In 1924, Puyi and his straggling retinue of wives, eunuchs, courtiers and servants were brusquely expelled from the Forbidden City by the latest warlord to take control of Beijing. To near-universal surprise, this warlord did not plunder the art collection to pay his soldiers but rather commissioned a meticulous inventory from the capital’s top scholars. He then turned the Forbidden City into the Palace Museum, opening it to the public. What had once been the private collection of a single ruling family became almost overnight the symbolic property of the Chinese people.