The former Imperial Collection of the Manchu (Ch'ing) dynasty of China, the vast assemblage of art objects from which the present National Palace and Central Museums collections were drawn, was brought together in the eighteenth century by the Emperor Kao-tsung, who is also known by the title of his long reign (1736-1796) as the Ch'ien-lung Emperor. He inherited many of the pieces from the earlier Manchu rulers, who had themselves taken over some of them from their predecessors, the imperial house of the Ming dynasty. But the greater part, including the majority of the important painting and calligraphy, Kao-tsung acquired from private owners, either by purchase or as gifts.
The Ch'ien-lung Emperor's taste was, naturally enough, aristocratic and conservative. Paintings from the court academies of former emperors, or from orthodox schools in later times, ceramics from the Sung and Ming imperial kilns, products of the most firmly founded and highly esteemed traditions of Chinese art, make up the bulk of the collection. There are, as a result, some gaps in it, whole schools and categories of art that are sparsely represented or absent altogether. Within its limitations, however, the Palace Museum collection is of unmatched richness; and its areas of strength are among the glories of Chinese art. It is these areas of strength that have been emphasized in the selection of the present exhibition. The aim has been to choose the finest pieces in each of the major categories, rather than to represent the widest possible range of types and styles, at the expense of quality.
The collection has had a remarkable history since Kao-tsung's time; it is unlikely that any other of comparable importance has travelled so far or been subjected to such hazards. It was passed down through the Manchu imperial line to the last emperor, Hsüan-t'ung, whose period of actual rule lasted only from 1908 until 1912, but who retained possession of the collection for some years after that. While it was under his control, a great many of the best pieces were given as gifts or otherwise disposed of. Most of what remained was installed in Peking in 1925 as the Palace Museum (Ku-kung Po-wu Yüan). Some objects that had been recovered from the old Summer Palace in Jehol were placed in a separate museum; these were eventually turned over to the National Central Museum in Nanking. During the period 1933-1937, when Peking was threatened by the Japanese invasion, the most important objects from both collections were crated and shipped south to Shanghai and Nanking. Later they were taken for safety inland to Szechwan and Kweichow Provinces where they remained throughout the war. Between 1945 and 1947, the crates were moved back to Nanking, and in 1949 to Taiwan where they have been kept ever since, stored near Taichung in the central part of the island.