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Palace Museum seeks new ways to make culture come alive

By Long Yuan, Zhang Mengying | 2016-10-13 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Shan Jixiang is the curator of the Palace Museum, one of China’s most prestigious museums, which is located in the Forbidden City in Beijing. A student of renowned Chinese academician Wu Liangyong (b.1922), Shan received his doctorate from the School of Architecture at Tsinghua University. He is a doctoral supervisor and adjunct professor of a number of universities, including Peking University and Tsinghua University. In March, 2005, Dr. Shan received the International Leadership Award issued by the American Planning Association (APA).



It was a crisp autumn day inside the Forbidden City. The jujubes and persimmons were ripe. Before the Meridian Gate, a stretch of ginkgo leaves with a shade of golden yellow were stacked on the trees.

Speaking with CSST reporters ahead of the 91st anniversary since the establishment of the Palace Museum, Shan Jixiang said that the museum is permeated with historical and cultural wealth, and each of its corners has a story.


CSST: Could you give a brief overview of the Palace Museum’s development in the years since it was founded?


Shan Jixiang: It was on Oct. 10, 1925 that the Palace Museum was established in the Forbidden City, which serves as the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1616-1911). On the basis laid by the early Caretaker Committee of the Qing Dynasty Imperial Family, the embryonic museum came into being.

After a 1925 item audit uncovered a number of important items, many of the works in the museum were moved southward to avoid the flames of wars. Part of the collection has subsequently been returned to Beijing and put back into place. Since the reform and opening-up, the Palace Museum has started a fresh new phase of development. Through out the course of nearly a century, those dedicated to the construction of the palace experienced innumerable ordeals and hardships—it was such toil and moil across a vast amount of time that made possible today’s grand, most-visited Chinese palace along with its large collection kept in storage.

Each tick of the clock in the Palace Museum’s history has added a new episode to the story. Some experts say the Palace Museum is an encyclopedia that is too thick to finish reading.

In 2020, the Forbidden City will reach its 600th birthday. By that time, two unprecedented cultural heritage protection projects of the Palace Museum—the Repair and Restoration of the Ancient Architecture and For a Safe Palace Museum (a project that aims to eliminate the potential safety hazards to the collections and facilities inside the museum) will have finished construction. At the same time, the museum aims to—by comprehensively enhancing its management and service— become one of the world’s first-class museums.


CSST: In addition to the Palace Museum in Beijing, there is also the Palace Museum in Taipei, the fact of which is the result of modern Chinese history under special circumstances. Many people today are still perplexed by the status quo of the artifact collection in the two museums. Some say that most of the rare and valuable works of art of the Beijing museum were shipped to Taiwan and are now housed in the Taipei museum. There is even a saying that the museum in Beijing has a “palace but no art” while the one in Taipei has “art but no palace.” How do you comment on this?


Shan Jixiang: The saying is quite biased. Above all, architecture is one of the most valuable relic resources of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The Forbidden City was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and has been listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world. Besides, the collection that the Beijing museum boasts is enormous both in amount and variety, which is of great historical, artistic and scientific value.

The inventory of China’s collection conducted in the end of 2010 showed that among the total 1.8 million artifacts held in the Palace Museum in Beijing, 93.2 percent are designated as nationally protected “valuable cultural relics,” accounting for nearly 42 percent of the nationwide total.

In addition, the fact that most of the museum’s artwork is sourced from imperial collections of the Qing Dynasty endows the museum a unique advantage. These works of art are rich in variety, classified into 25 different types, including paintings, model calligraphy, inscription rubbing, bronze ware, gold and silver ornaments, lacquer ware, enamel objects and jade.

From a historical view, the artifacts are housed sequentially according to period. The pieces of ceramics and porcelains housed represent the overall evolution of Chinese ceramics and porcelain. The earliest pieces of jade date from the Neolithic period, and the later pieces include items from the Qing Dynasty. There is jade from each dynasty with no gaps in between.

After he visited the Palace Museum in September 2005, the famed scholar Li Ao from Taiwan exclaimed: “I once said that the Palace Museum in Beijing has ‘palace but no art,’ while the one in Taipei has ‘art but no palace,’ but I realized that I was wrong, for which, I need to recant.”

It is the historical factor that led to the division of the artifacts of the two museums in Beijing and Taipei. As I said before, the artifacts of both museums are from those imperial collections of the Qing Dynasty, which means that they share the same sources of development and are complementary to each other. Therefore, exchanges between the two museums are of great importance, which is conductive to fostering the sense of recognition and belonging for Chinese national culture. And this will also have far-reaching impact on the overall cultural ties between the mainland China and Taiwan.


CSST: In 2012, the Art Newspaper of Britain released a ranking of the most popular museums of the year, and the Louvre Museum in Paris ranked top in part due to its ability to attract as many as 9.7 million visitors. However, the Palace Museum, which attracts more visitors annually, is not on the list. Could you please comment on the status of the Palace Museum in today’s global museum sector?


Shan Jixiang: Each appraisal has its own standard. The Palace Museum attracts visitors from around the globe, receiving more than 15 million people each year. So I think it merits the title of “the most-visited museum.” Moreover, it is usually the first choice of most of the visitors from home and abroad. Foreign visitors account for quite a large proportion.

In recent years, the international influence of the Palace Museum has been growing. It has established long-term ties of cooperation with famous overseas museums, such as the British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the State Hermitage Museum of Russia.

The areas of cooperation extend beyond exhibitions of artifacts to also include artifact protection, scientific research and talent cultivation.

To me, the evaluation of a museum’s merit should take into account the actual performance and contribution to society instead of simply using the number of visitors and size of the collection as the standard.


CSST: In his speech delivered at the headquarters of UNESCO, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that we need to bring to life all collections in our museums, all heritage structures across our lands and all records in our classics. The creative cultural products of the Palace Museum, with its profound cultural elements and varied styles, are symbols of the spirit of craftsmanship that China advocates. We noticed that the solemn and majestic Palace Museum is now livening up…


Shan Jixiang: Probably, in many people’s mind, the image of the Palace Museum is genteel and serious. In fact, many artifacts housed in it were objects in vogue in their particular period of history. The Palace Museum has been reflecting upon a suitable way to have a dialogue with contemporary people so as to satisfy their cultural and aesthetic needs.

The Palace Museum now owns about 8,700 kinds of creative cultural products, some of which are customized and some have proprietary intellectual property rights. “To bring the Palace Museum culture home” is the starting point of these products.

At the same time, the Palace Museum is the only museum in China that has its own publishing press. Through book, magazine and postcard publishing, its museum culture is now entering into people’s life: For example, some “time-travel images” from a set of pictures showing old photos of the Forbidden City blended with current scenes has gone viral online, drawing numerous comments. The old images, taken between 1922 and 1924, were selected from a collection of over 40,000 photos that captured the life of Puyi, the last Qing emperor, and his family in the palace. The photos, published by the Forbidden City magazine, have been lauded for their ingenuity.


Long Yuan and Zhang Mengying are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.