The collections of the Palace Museum are based on the Qing imperial collection. According to the results of a 1925 audit, some 1.17 million items were stored in the Forbidden City. In addition, the imperial libraries housed one of the country’s largest collections of ancient books and various documents, including government documents of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
From 1933, the threat of Japanese invasion forced the evacuation of the most important parts of the Museum’s collection. After the end of World War II, this collection was returned to Nanjing. However, with the Communists’ victory imminent in the Chinese Civil War, the Nationalist government decided to ship the pick of this collection to Taiwan. Of the 13,491 boxes of evacuated artifacts, 2,972 boxes are now housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. More than 8,000 boxes were returned to Beijing, but 2,221 boxes remain today in storage under the charge of the Nanjing Museum.
After 1949, the Museum conducted a new audit as well as a thorough search of the Forbidden City, uncovering a number of important items. In addition, the government moved items from other museums around the country to replenish the Palace Museum’s collection. It also purchased and received donations from the public.
Today, there are over a million rare and valuable works of art in the permanent collection of the Palace Museum, including paintings, ceramics, seals, steles, sculptures, inscribed wares, bronze wares, court documents, etc. According to an inventory of the Museum’s collection conducted between 2004 and 2010, the Palace Museum holds a total of 1,807,558 artifacts and includes 1,684,490 items designated as nationally protected “valuable cultural relics.”
The Palace Museum holds 340,000 pieces of ceramics and porcelain. These include imperial collections from the Tang Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, as well as pieces commissioned by the Palace, and, sometimes, by the Emperor personally. The Palace Museum holds about 320,000 pieces of porcelain from the imperial collection. The rest are almost all held in the National Palace Museum in Taipei and the Nanjing Museum.
The Palace Museum holds close to 50,000 paintings. Of these, more than 400 date from before the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). This is the largest such collection in China. The collection is based on the palace collection in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The personal interest of Emperors such as Qianlong meant that the palace held one of the most important collections of paintings in Chinese history. However, a significant portion of this collection was lost over the years. After his abdication, Puyi transferred paintings out of the palace, and many of these were subsequently lost or destroyed. In 1948, many of the works were moved to Taiwan. The collection has subsequently been replenished, through donations, purchases, and transfers from other museums.
The Palace Museum’s bronze collection dates from the early Shang Dynasty. Of the almost 10,000 pieces held, about 1,600 are inscribed items from the pre-Qin period (to 221 BC). A significant part of the collection is ceremonial bronzeware from the imperial court.
The Palace Museum has one of the largest collections of mechanical timepieces of the 18th and 19th centuries in the world, with more than 1,000 pieces. The collection contains both Chinese- and foreign-made pieces. Chinese pieces came from the palace’s own workshops, Guangzhou (Canton) and Suzhou (Suchow). Foreign pieces came from countries including Britain, France, Switzerland, the United States and Japan. Of these, the largest portion come from Britain.
Jade has a unique place in Chinese culture. The Museum’s collection, mostly derived from the imperial collection, includes some 30,000 pieces. The pre-Yuan Dynasty part of the collection includes several pieces famed throughout history, as well as artifacts from more recent archaeological discoveries. The earliest pieces date from the Neolithic period. Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty pieces, on the other hand, include both items for palace use, as well as tribute items from around the Empire and beyond.
- Palace artifacts
In addition to works of art, a large proportion of the Museum’s collection consists of the artefacts of the imperial court. This includes items used by the imperial family and the palace in daily life, as well as various ceremonial and bureaucratic items important to government administration. This comprehensive collection preserves the daily life and ceremonial protocols of the imperial era.