The Odyssey of China's Imperial Art Treasures

Jeannette Shambaugh Elliot and David Shambaugh

  • Published: 2005
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / China; Art History / Asian Art; Visual Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 178 pp., 49 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Contents

The Odyssey of China's Imperial Art Treasures traces the three-thousand-year history of the emperor's imperial collection, from the Bronze Age to the present. The tortuous story of these treasures involves a succession of dynasties, invasion and conquest, and civil war, resulting in valiant attempts to rescue and preserve the collection. Throughout history, different Chinese regimes used the imperial collection to bolster their own political legitimacy, domestically and internationally.

The narrative follows the gradual formation of the Peking Palace Museum in 1925, then its hasty fragmentation as large parts of the collection were moved perilously over long distances to escape wartime destruction, and finally its formal division into what are today two Palace Museums-one in Beijing, the other in Taipei.

Enlivened by the personalities of those who cared for the collection, this textured account of the imperial treasures highlights magnificent artworks and their arduous transit through politics, war, and diplomatic reconciliations. Over the years, control of the collections has been fiercely contested, from early dynasties through Mongol and Japanese invaders to Nationalist and Communist rivals- a saga that continues today.

This first book-length investigation of the imperial collections will be of great interest to China scholars, historians, and Chinese art specialists. Its tales of palace intrigue will fascinate a wide variety of readers.
Jeannette Shambaugh Elliott (1912-96) was a Sinologist and art collector. David Shambaugh is professor and director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He is the former editor of The China Quarterly and a preeminent analyst of contemporary Chinese affairs, with numerous publications to his credit.

"This is a helpful introduction to the tangled and absorbing story of how the magnificent Chinese palace art collection was formed, how it survived the darkest periods of the Japanese occupation, and how it ended up divided between Taipei and Beijing."
-Jonathan Spence, Yale University

"Jeannette Shambaugh Elliott and David Shambaugh weave information and insights from both oral and documentary sources into a fascinating and authoritative account of the vicissitudes of this incomparably greatest of all assemblages of Chinese art."
-James Cahill, Professor Emeritus, History of Art, University of California-Berkeley

"The dramatic story of the formation and preservation of China's collection of national art treasures, now preserved in the state museums of Beijing and Taipei, is a true saga. It is a tale of adventure, intrigue, danger, mystery, and idealistic determination that resulted in the miraculous preservation of one of the world's greatest art collections."
-Richard M. Barnhart, The John M. Schiff Professor Emeritus of Art History, Yale University

"The first book-length study of the history of imperial collecting, this accessible account illuminates the vital role of the fine arts in China's political identity. The narrative of the transformation of the imperial palace and its furnishings into two great museums will fascinate both specialists and general readers."
-Alfreda Murck, author of Poetry and Painting in Song China

Foreword: The Saga of China's Imperial Collections, by Thomas Lawton


1. China's Imperial Art Treasures from Early Times to the Twelfth Century
2. Imperial Treasures under the Ming and Qing Dynasties
3. From Private to Public Treasures: The Early Republican Era, 1911-1930
4. The Treasures through Times of War, 1931-1947
5. Relocating and Rebuilding the Palace Museum on Taiwan
6. The Gugong in Beijing: National Treasure and Political Object
7. Epilogue: The Politics of China's Imperial Art


"A master narrative of the political life of art objects in China, from early Shang-dynasty bronze vessels to the remnant collections of the last Qing emperor now belonging to the National Palace Museum in Taiwan and the Palace Museum in Beijing. . . . The study is the first to present an extended account in English of the travails of creating, compiling, and protecting a national patrimony in tumultuous twentieth-century China."
-CAA Reviews

"The story is enriched with the personalities and events that shaped the collections over the centuries, and the details of the study provide an informative background for specialists, students, and connoisseurs. This is a fascinating, enlightening study of a little-known subject. Highly recommended."