Wars not only put individual lives at risk, but entire cultures. From Ukraine to Iraq to Afghanistan, we’ve grown used to seeing images of looted museums, obliterated landmarks, and broken artifacts. The theft of important works of art in Western Europe by the Nazis during World War II has been widely documented. Less well-known—and told here for the first time in English—is the astounding true story of the efforts in China to protect one of the greatest art collections in the world from almost certain destruction.
In Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of the Forbidden City, journalist Adam Brookes gives readers the gripping true story of the bold and determined museum curators who saved the priceless treasures of China’s Forbidden City in the years leading up to World War II and beyond.
Spring 1933: The silent courtyards and palaces of Peking’s Forbidden City, for centuries the home of Chinese emperors, are tense with fear and expectation. Japan’s aircrafts drone overhead, its troops and tanks are only hours away. All-out war between China and Japan is coming, and the curators of the Forbidden City are faced with an impossible question: how will they protect the vast imperial art collections in their charge? A difficult and monumental decision is made: to safeguard the treasures, they must be evacuated.
The magnificent collections contain a million pieces of art—objects that carry China’s most ancient memories. Among them are irreplaceable artifacts: exquisite paintings on silk, vanishingly rare Ming porcelain, and the extraordinary Stone Drums of Qin, which are adorned with 2,500-year-old inscriptions of crucial cultural significance. For sixteen terrifying years, under the quiet leadership of museum director Ma Heng, the curators would go on to transport the imperial art collections thousands of miles across China—up rivers of white water, across mountain ranges, and through burning cities. In their search for safety the curators and their fragile, invaluable cargo journeyed through the maelstrom of violence, chaos, and starvation that was China’s Second World War.
Like Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes and Brett Witter and Robert Edsel's The Monuments Men, Fragile Cargo is a people-led history of global conflict and political upheaval, which draws on first-hand diary accounts and original oral interviews with surviving eyewitnesses to explore the cultural, social and political impact of war upon China's people, and its art. Fragile Cargo reminds us of the enduring power of beauty in a world beset by conflict and violence.
About the Author
Adam Brookes was born in Canada and grew up in the United Kingdom. For many years he was a journalist for BBC News, working as a correspondent in Beijing, as well as in Indonesia and the United States. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.
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