Beijing’s Palace Museum, located in the heart of the Forbidden City, contains the world’s largest collection of Chinese art, spanning nearly 5,000 years of history. Now, more than 900 of those treasures are on display at the new Hong Kong Palace Museum — a “gift” from the central government to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule.
While there’s nothing overtly political within its collection — by modern standards, at least — the museum sparked controversy when it was first announced by Hong Kong’s outgoing leader Carrie Lam in late 2016, partly due to the apparent lack of public consultation before the project was green-lit.
The Palace Museum’s long-term loan, which comprises rare paintings, calligraphic works, ceramics, jade and more from its 1.8 million-strong collection, is “unprecedented at every level,” says the Hong Kong museum’s chairman Bernard Chan.
“This is the first time ever that large quantities of these national treasures are being taken out … to another cultural institution, so you can imagine the complexity behind it,” he adds, citing challenges around transportation, security and insurance, the latter of which took a conglomerate of around 100 insurance companies from around the world to resolve.
The red-studded doors at the museum’s entrance. Construction of the building was funded by a $3.5 billion HKD ($450 million) donation by the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum
Curating exhibitions in the midst of a pandemic also proved challenging — as did an accelerated timeline ensuring that the museum, its construction funded by a $3.5 billion HKD ($450 million) donation by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, opened in time for this week’s anniversary.
“When I was a curator in the United States, I spent three years working on one exhibition. Now I have three years to work on nine exhibitions,” says deputy director Daisy Wang Yiyou, referring to the museum’s ambitious opening program.
The stunning artifacts, 166 of which are considered “grade-one national treasures,” feature in thematic shows, including one exploring aspects of imperial life in the Forbidden City and another focused on innovative design and production techniques. Elsewhere, an exhibition of art inspired by horses juxtaposes works from the Forbidden City with pieces on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Some of the objects have never been seen in public before, including two recently restored sketches of empresses.
A glass vase, which looks surprisingly contemporary with its spiral pattern, showcases innovative techniques used during the Qing dynasty. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Wang expects the “blockbuster” attraction to be the museum’s rotating exhibition of Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Jin, Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties.
“(These works) are extremely fragile and extremely rare, so after 30 days in Hong Kong, they are going to be escorted back to the Forbidden City storage… (to) rest for a few years,” she explains.
166 artifacts of the loan are considered national treasures including this one, “Ten Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains,” a 12th century ink-on-paper work by Zhao Fu. Credit: The Palace Museum
City’s changing environment for art
One of the museum’s nine galleries focuses on the history of Chinese ceramics, particularly imperial porcelain from the Ming and Qing dynasties. Credit: Hong Kong Palace Museum
The Hong Kong Palace Museum was not part of initial plans for the sprawling arts district, which sits on a patch of reclaimed land and has been in development since the early 2000s. Lam’s unexpected unveiling of plans in December 2016 was seen by some critics as a means to curry political favor with China’s central government (she had Hong Kong’s second highest job at the time). Others alleged that Beijing had applied pressure to approve the museum.
Lam rejected allegations that the project was going ahead for political reasons.
“I know that our society today is full of this type of mistrust. But for this project, we really are not motivated by self-interest,” she said in 2017. “We really just hope to build a Hong Kong Palace Museum, for Hong Kong, that we can all be proud of.”
The museum’s announcement was nonetheless “a surprise to everyone, including myself,” recalls Chan. “Nobody knew about it,” he says. “But you can imagine why it was kept sort of a secret. That discussion is at a very high level.”
A festive robe from the Qianlong period (1736 to 1795) is displayed during a media preview of the Hong Kong Palace Museum in Hong Kong on June 22, 2022. Credit: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
Though the extent of Beijing’s role remains unknown, the museum is in keeping with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “Chinese Dream,” or “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which sees China’s economic future and international influence intertwined with the glories of the nation’s past. Xi has spoken on multiple occasions about artists’ role in promoting patriotism and spreading Chinese and “socialist core” values. Traditional Chinese culture, in his vision, should be seen as a source of inspiration for present-day literary and artistic innovation.
The Hong Kong Palace Museum, designed by Rocco Design Architects Associates, is situated in the West Kowloon Cultural District overlooking Victoria Harbour. Hong Kong is positioning itself as an East-meets-West cultural hub with the development of new arts spaces in the district. Credit: ROCCO Design Associates Architects Limited
But the museum opens in a starkly different Hong Kong. Beijing’s push for soft power comes at a time when freedom of expression is being curtailed following mass pro-democracy protests and the sweeping National Security Law that effectively brought them to a halt in 2020.
Over 600,000 objects from the Forbidden City were taken to the island by retreating nationalist forces in the 1940s. With tensions between Beijing and Taipei at an all-time high, the museum is planning a drill for evacuating artifacts, should a war break out.
“I hope that one day there can be an actual collaboration between the three museums, because we are all showcasing Chinese civilization,” says Chan, expressing hope that the city’s new museum and its trove of treasures can transcend politics.
“Where does Chinese civilization come from? And how is Chinese civilization connected with other civilizations? Because we’re not alone, right? I think that’s important, especially at a time when the world is so polarized and divided.”
A portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor in court attire. Credit: The Palace Museum
For Hong Kong residents, meanwhile, the museum is a hot summer destination, with 100,000 tickets already sold for July. Besides offering an opportunity to see the famous objects up close, the museum’s job is to make their stories relevant to local audiences, Wang says.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a historian or a driver,” she says. “You (can) relate to these fantastical treasures, and the stories we tell. You can be moved emotionally by the objects.”
CNN’s Kevin Broad, Momo Moussa, Tom Booth, Dan Hodge and Ziyu Zhang contributed to this report.