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September 22, 2017

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National art collection evokes hard history

One of Zhuang Ling's earliest memories is accompanying a truck carrying some of the art from the Guizhou province city of Anxun to Ba county in Sichuan, near the Nationalist wartime capital. He was 5 years old, and the roads were overflowing with refugees fleeing the Japanese army.

"People were carrying their belongings on poles they balanced across their shoulders," he said. "At one point we were buzzed by a Japanese spotter plane. Then we crossed a bridge made of thin wooden planks and I heard the planks groan under the weight of the truck. But they managed to hold and we made it across safely."

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, the art works were sent back to Nanjing, as the Nationalist government tried to re-establish its authority. But fighting with the Communists soon resumed - it had been suspended for most of World War II - and intensified over the next two and a half years. By mid-1948 the Nationalists' situation was desperate, and Chiang Kai-shek decided to evacuate the art across the Taiwan Strait. Zhuang Yan was chosen to accompany the first shipment to Keelung.

"The trip took four days," Zhuang Ling recalled. "It was windy and rainy, and the vessel rocked hard on the sea. My mother got sick, she fell ill from the boat's motion even before we departed and hardly ate the whole way. It was a very difficult voyage."

The art works, Zhuang remembers, were stored in iron and wood boxes, in the main cargo hold, covered by canvas sheeting.

"Some of us were sleeping right on the boxes," he said. "I knew the artifacts were important, but I was too young to understand that they were the very essence of Chinese culture."

After the Chung Ting arrived in Keelung, the artifacts were temporarily stored in a railway warehouse before being moved to a sugar cane factory near the central city of Taichung. They remained there until 1965, when the permanent quarters of the new National Palace Museum opened in Taipei. The museum was constructed in the form of a classical Chinese building to evoke the country's rich imperial past.

The museum's opening marked the end of any illusions Zhuang or his father had about an early return to the mainland. His father, Zhuang said, had not known that he would never see his homeland again when they left Nanjing in 1948. But the opening of the museum brought him back to earth. He knew he would never return.

Set against a steeply rising hill covered in acacia trees

and bamboo groves, the four-story National Palace Museum features beige-colored facades and a sloping green-tiled roof. Its 27 galleries are bright and well-lit, the result of a $21 million facelift that since 2007 has provided an expansive backdrop for the greatest collection of Chinese art in the world.

The museum's collection spans some 8,000 years, from well-preserved Neolithic jade carvings to late Ching dynasty paintings and figurines. All told there are 6,000 bronzes, 5,200 paintings, 3,000 works of calligraphy, 12,000 pieces of jade, 3,200 examples of lacquer and enamel ware, as well as assorted carvings, fans, rubbings, coins and textiles.

On a recent weekday afternoon the museum was crowded with visitors, many from mainland China. Their presence reflected the efforts of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to develop better relations with Beijing.

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