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South China Morning Post, Wednesday, January 3, 2001:

Ma Chengyuan
and the creation of Shanghai Museum

Short and confident, Ma Chengyuan is the Machiavelli or Mr Fixit of the Shanghai Museum; a man who found a trick to triumph in every crisis. When Red Guards arrived to storm the museum, he made his own staff put on Red Guard arm bands to fool the invaders into thinking it was already occupied. When his own staff turned radical and tortured him by dropping him on to the marble floors of the storeroom, Ma confessed to nothing. His greatest achievement, however, was the grand reopening of the museum in 1996. Ma had to employ many ruses to get it built.

Now hailed as the country's first world-class museum, it sits opposite the colossal people's government building, shaped like some vast Shang dynasty bronze. Shanghai was East Asia's great antiques bazaar both before and after 1949. As the fortunes of war and revolution forced the rich and powerful to sell their collections of art, a great concentration of China's cultural heritage accumulated there. Ma and his colleagues had the pleasure of picking out the best and creating a permanent home for this collection.

More than any of Shanghai's new public buildings, the Shanghai Museum seems to have been willed into existence by one individual. Ma toured abroad raising more than $78 million from rich or cultured donors, especially among the Shanghai diaspora, to build the $542 million showcase. Those who had fled to Hong Kong were particularly generous.

The Min Chiu Society, the territory's exclusive club of collectors; Tsui Tsin-tong, the Kadoories, Joseph Hotung, Quincy Chuang and Sir Quo-wei Lee, contributed $20 million. Ten of the museum's 14 galleries commemorate Hong Kong benefactors: the Woo Po-shing Gallery of Chinese Bronze; the T T Tsui Gallery of Chinese Ceramics; the Run Run Shaw Gallery of Chinese Painting; the Joseph E Hotung Gallery of Chinese Jades; the Chuangs' Gallery of Classical Furniture; and the Kadoorie Gallery of Chinese Minority Nationalities Art.

According to Ma, the museum was omitted from the five-year reconstruction plan launched in 1992 under the Shanghai leadership's party secretary, Huang Ju. The budget included money for key cultural buildings such as the new library or the Shanghai Opera House but not for a museum.

"I wrote him a long letter explaining why something had to be done but there was no money," says Ma.

That winter he succeeded in persuading Huang Ju to pay a visit to the decaying rooms of the Zhong Hui Dalou, the then site of the museum, an imposing building on the Henan South Road built in the 1930s as the headquarters of a domestic bank which was once controlled by the notorious Green gang.

"I took him to the worst places to show him that repair was out of the question," Ma says with a chuckle.

Huang Ju agreed to allocate a site on the former race course next to the Shanghai Opera House which was to have been turned into a lake, but the museum had to find its own building funds.

Ma raised US$25 million (HK$195 million) by leasing the land under the old bank building to a Hong Kong developer and construction started on the new museum in 1994. It was almost halted by Beijing when Zhu Rongji ordered a freeze on all new projects in a bid to cool the overheated economy.

"We kept going because we surrounded the site and told no one what we were doing. That way no news leaked out," says Ma.

For two years, Ma took frequent trips abroad and won US$10 million of donations which he spent importing the very best equipment.

"Then we ran out of money. The city government had promised us operating subsidies but no building money," he explains.

Ma then tried another ruse. Building work stopped and as the construction site was directly in front of the municipal government building he waited for top officials to notice for themselves what had happened.

"It took two months before they noticed and came over to investigate," he says. Eventually he won another 140 million yuan (HK$130 million) in funding and by November 1996 the first floor was opened to visitors.

Less than one per cent of the museum's vast collection of antiques (about 200,000 items) is ever on display. How Ma and his colleagues, who started with 13,000 items in 1955, managed to acquire this hoard of bronzes, porcelain, pottery, furniture, coins, embroidery, seals, is both extraordinary and controversial.

Among Shanghai's old elite, some are still angry at what they consider the expropriation of their property. But Ma, who bridles at any suggestion of wrongdoing, insists: "There was no pressure. People donated their possessions of their own free will."

He admits, though, the Cultural Revolution provided unusual circumstances. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Ma had found himself in a unique position to keep tabs on the amazing treasures from all over China that were in circulation. Since the 1930s, Shanghai had been crowded with impoverished refugees, many of whom had kept their most valuable positions hidden from Japanese or warlord troops. Then in the mid-1950s when Ma joined the museum, former capitalists and landlords were under pressure to hand over their assets to the state. A large antiques market sprang up as people quickly sold off while they still had a chance to find a price and leave.

"Many people came from all China to sell in Shanghai in a big rush," he says. "You either had to sell to the government or donate. We selected what we wanted."

At that time the museum was housed in the former race course club house, close to its current address, and it benefited from the support of Chen Yi, the communist general who ran Shanghai. He would eagerly come and inspect the new pieces at Spring Festival. During the Great Leap Forward Ma was sent with other officials from the Cultural Relics Bureau on a five-month tour of Qinghai, Xinjiang and Tibet to select the best works of art. Thousands of monasteries and religious sites were closed and demolished. Many artefacts were burnt, melted down or shipped back to the coastal regions.

"The locals destroyed the temples themselves. They sold things to us voluntarily. We tried to select things made locally, we represented the culture of that place," Ma says.

In the early 1960s, when the Communist Party feared invasion, Shanghai had the relics packed and stored in the Zhong Hui Bank's vaults where they would be safe from air raids. From then on Ma and the rest of the museum staff struggled to protect what they already had and what was still in private homes.

By 1966 when teams of Red Guards descended on Shanghai from Beijing to carry out house-to-house searches, Ma and his colleagues had already visited the homes of the main collectors and knew what was important to protect.

"Every day people called us. I stayed and slept in the office round the clock," he says. "We found a lot of things and kept the best in the museum and the rest in storage."

During the ransacking of so many homes, many unexpected treasures turned up. One find was the original standard weights of Yang Shang, the chancellor of the Qin state which more than 2,000 years ago unified China and enforced standard weights and measures.

Many appealed to Ma hoping that if they quickly disposed of their old possessions they could save their lives. In some cases, like that of Cheng Mengjia, who had a collection of antique furniture, the Cultural Relics Bureau officials arrived too late. Cheng died, probably at the hands of his persecutors although his death was recorded as suicide.

Ma says he wrote to the government appealing for action and a "leading group for clearing up relics from house searches" was formed. In 1997 this group ordered each city district to establish a warehouse to hold property seized in these searches. Meanwhile, the curators set about compiling inventories, giving one copy to the leading group, another to the original owners and a third was kept by the museum.

Yet soon, the revolution began to consume Ma. Initially, he had kept the Red Guards out by transforming his staff into fake Red Guards and protecting the relics by daubing Maoist slogans over all the exhibit cases.

"When Red Guards arrived, we told them we were busy making revolution ourselves," he says.

Soon the museum staff split into two factions. The extremists seized the senior officials, including Ma, to wage class struggle. He was held for nine months in a storage room and tortured to force him to confess that he was a "traitor" who had sold off relics for profit.

Four interrogators would lift up a victim by the legs and arms and drop them repeatedly on to the bank's marble floor. "If your head hit the floor, then you were finished," he says. Six or seven staff members died under investigation. When Ma was cleared, he was sent to the countryside and worked for five years in a labour reform camp for Shanghai cadres in Hubbei province.

In 1972, as China organized an exhibition of archaeological treasures to exhibit in America after President Nixon's visit, Ma was brought back to Shanghai to help.

While he was away, he discovered that much of the collection had been secretly trucked out of Shanghai and hidden inside depots tunneled out of mountains in the south of Anhui province. "Lin Biao gave the order in 1970 to protect them from a nuclear war," Ma explains. With the threat of war diminishing, the museum began reorganizing its displays with the hope of opening its doors. Ma again used his wits. "We were supposed to illustrate class struggle, to condemn the life of the rulers, but I thought we can do it in a different way, to show the creativity of the masses because all these works were created by the people," he says.

"The worker militias came and criticised us but I quoted Mao at them," he says. Finally, he was allowed to organise four exhibits - bronzes, pottery, sculpture, painting - to demonstrate the craftsmanship of the Chinese people.

A major ideological breakthrough, this meant that the exhibits need not be mounted in any chronological order and thus avoid demonstrating the Marxist view of history as an inevitable progression through stages leading to a classless society.

After Mao Zedong's death, class struggle was dropped as the overriding ideology and Shanghai opened the warehouses and allowed people to reclaim their possessions. Some decided to keep what was theirs. Many sold them for a trifle or were persuaded to volunteer the best pieces to the museum.

It is illegal to take anything over 150 years old out of the country without the permission of the Cultural Relics Bureau.

Cheng Mengjia's widow, for example, reclaimed his furniture collection but when she died last year, her brother came from the US and agreed to sell the 26 pieces for 10 million yuan.

At 73, Ma is no longer directing the museum's affairs but he remains intensely active in efforts to prevent the smuggling of exports. His famous eye for the best is often deployed in hunting for relics that have reached shops or auction houses in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

In Hong Kong, Ma has spotted everything from Qin dynasty bells robbed from tombs in Shaanxi to bamboo slips recording hitherto unknown teachings of Confucius.

Curio and antique shops are opening again in Shanghai and Ma says a flourishing antiques market has sprung up. Chinese collectors have yet to acquire the clout of outside buyers but Shanghai could yet regain its old reputation.

Museum benefactor:

As a continuation of the above article, the following was published under the headline "Home's hidden legacy "