Cover Image: Fragile Cargo

Fragile Cargo

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Member Reviews

A really interesting true story about the quest to save treasures of the Forbidden City in China during WWII. I feel like most books, even nonfiction, that people gravitate towards for WWII are very Euro-centric so it was nice to see the focus elsewhere.
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In my opinion this is a very informative book relating to Chinese history overall with a brief description of what life was like in the Forbidden city where the emperor and his family lived and what day to day life was like for the emperor. There are many buildings within these walls, and some are to house the national treasures with some being obtain by war, by gift, the emperor having commissioned to be made or some made by the emperor himself. Many of the national treasures and the inside of the forbidden city were never meant for public view. But this changed as various wars and or conflicts lead to artifacts starting to be plunder. Around the 1920's and 1930's and 40's with Japan wanting to be the dominant country in the Asian countries along with the rise of Communism there was a very real threat to these treasures which i believe totaled over a couple of hundred thousand artifacts. As you will read there are some individuals who are tasked with opening the walls and taking inventory of the artifacts, best way to pack them and how and where to move them. This is the main focus of the story of the moving of these artifacts over a ten-year period always one step away from being harmed by war. It is amazing to see the dedication regardless of the turmoil in the country that some of the individuals had in protecting these treasures. It also is amazing to realize how many more of these artifacts could have been lost or at least damaged and ruined forever. There are some points that this gets a little dry in the reading but overall, it is a good read that many may not even know about.
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Thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for access to this arc. 

When I read the blurb for this book, I knew it was something I wanted to read. These impossible but true events are my catnip. And this is the kind of book I love, one that informs me and also makes me hurry to the internet to look deeper into a subject – or just search out images of the priceless art lovingly saved during a time of world destruction.

When the last Emperor of China left the Forbidden City, the arduous task of cataloging the immense art collection there – the product of centuries, millennia, of Chinese culture – began. In freezing cold temperatures, a legion of scholars, professors, and others worked to list and tag each item from the 2500 year old Stone Drums to delicate carved jade to painstakingly fired Ming red porcelain to beautifully painted silk scrolls to rare books to priceless calligraphy. From eras before China was thought of as one nation, these items carried immense cultural heritage and were irreplaceable.

But not long after the new Palace Museum was opened, those in charge of it realized that danger was coming and they would need to protect it from the foreseen ravages of war. With over a million listed items, there was no way to move it all so impossible choices were made with the best of the best being chosen. How to pack all this to protect the “fragile cargo?” Go to the still unpacked boxes of Imperial china that had been sent to the Palace. Tight packing, rice husks, and wads of cotton batting were used to bind everything so tightly that even traveling over rough roads, up raging rivers, and across icy mountain switchback roads items remained safe.

Moved, moved, moved, shipped around the world for an exhibit in London, shipped back in a ship that ran aground, moved, split up, moved to the Soviet Union for an exhibit only months before the German invasion, shipped back, moved again often staying just days ahead of Japanese troops or desperately trying to avoid Japanese bombers, the curators begged, borrowed, implored, and demanded the help of many to tote, haul, and carry the carefully labeled boxes to places of safety. All the while the country was in the throes of a vicious war that ravaged towns, cities, and rural China costing millions of lives.

The book is so much more than moving the collection though. It’s about the dedication of the museum staff as they shepherded the boxes, unpacked and checked the items, repacked the boxes, then moved them yet again. It’s about the sacrifices they and their family members made to this endeavor. It’s about the horrors endured by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion and then again as the PLA and the Republicans fought over what kind of nation China was to become after the war. It’s written succinctly and well with neither too little nor too much detail. I wish that the arc I read had illustrations of some of the artwork mentioned but after meandering through the websites of the National Taiwan Museum and the National Museum of China, I can see why the objects mentioned were deemed so important and saved at all costs. B+
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This book is a story of how a group of courageous museum curators saved the collection of Chinese artifacts that belonged to the several dynasties of Chinese emperors. Early in the XXth century the collection was housed in the Forbidden city, in Beijing. In the 1930s collection was packed in crates and started on the treacherous journey to escape its capture by the Japanese. The second part of the book talks about the fate of the collection curators, mainly Ma Heng, under the communist regime, the harsh and humiliating treatment he suffered for his devotion to the collection he didn't live to see again. The book is a fascinating read.  The author writes that this story has never been published in English, so the readers will learn new information about Chinese history and Chinese art in addition to enjoying Adam Brookes' ability to combine the elements of a thriller with a picturesque writing style.   This is a great book to offer those art and history lovers who prefer fiction but might want to branch out and try a nonfiction book.
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Wow. I believe now that a TARDIS can exist, since I've just read a book that is much bigger on the inside than it's size would indicate.

This is the story of protecting a national art collection during turbulent times in China, but the book goes well beyond dry facts and figures about the transportation of the artwork over many miles in search of a safe haven. We learn about the artists and the times they lived in. We learn about the treasures of the Forbidden City and the people who gave their all to catalog and protect a staggering number of art objects.
This meticulously researched book puts us right there in the Forbidden City, shivering alongside the catalogers, risking frostbite and struggling with pots of frozen ink while pushing forward with their herculean task. This job took its toll on many people, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.

And those travels - Indiana Jones could only dream of such adventures! The mishap with the stone drum... well, I will not spoil that in advance. You need to gasp with surprise just as I did.

This book needs to be shelved in the libraries of as many universities and museums as possible, and soon. History is fascinating, when the stories are told by a passionate, learned storyteller. Adam Brookes is one of those, and he has my thanks for an outstanding experience.

My thanks to author Adam Brookes, Atria Books, and NetGalley for allowing me to read a digital advance review copy of this book. This review is my honest and unbiased opinion.
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