Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 13 News List

The mystic and the dictator

The National Palace Museum’s debt to Russian painter Nicholas Roerich

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

In early 1935, Roerich offered his Banner of Peace to Generalissimo Chiang. With its distinctive Pax Cultura logo, which became the emblem of the Roerich Pact and the International Day of Culture, the presentation of the banner was a call to arms in defense of China’s cultural heritage.

“This was more than a symbolic gesture,” writes the Russian historian Alexandre Andreyev in his book The Myth of the Masters Revived: The Occult Lives of Nikolai and Elena Roerich. “General Chiang was fighting with the ‘red’ Chinese troops and needed to be reminded of the importance of preserving his nation’s great cultural treasures in wartime.”

Referring to the Chiang’s launch of the New Life Movement, designed to reawaken traditional Confucian values, Andreyev says Roerich saw Chiang as “a potential ally.”


Yet these ulterior motives remained clandestine.

“Roerich was sent to China by the US Government to study the drought-resistant grass,” says Gvido Tripsa, director of the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. “Therefore, he kept all his political activities secret and no information in this regard was sent back to Washington.”

Still, Roerich continued to correspond with Chiang, receiving a written promise from the Generalissimo to abide by the provisions of the artist’s nascent pact. With the Sino-Japanese War breaking out soon after, Chiang moved more than 15,000 crates of objects from Beijing’s National Palace Museum to locations in Sichuan and Guizhou before finally ferrying them to Taiwan in three main shipments between December 1948 and February 1949.

Of course, a cynical view might hold that rapacity, hardly in short supply among the KMT, rather than patriotic duty, was behind the desperate concern for this priceless bounty.

“Fortune was with us; not so much as a teacup was broken,” the National Palace Museum’s first director Han Lih-wu (杭立武) told the New York Times in 1986. By most accounts this is true. What remains unknown is the level of shrinkage that occurred en route.

For all his monumental character failings, though, Chiang did care about China’s cultural heritage. But, as Andreyev notes, the Generalissimo had his hands full. Persistent nudging by the likes of Roerich surely played a part in ensuring the safety of the treasures.

But not everyone is convinced.

“The kind of intellectual monument they build over the Roerich family is just too much,” says Hakan Wahlqvist, keeper of the Sven Hedin Foundation in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Of a presentation he attended at the International Center of the Roerichs (ICR) in Moscow, Wahlqvist recalls: “A professor from Moscow eulogized the Roerichs ... For the first time I then heard about ‘The Pact,’ but I have never heard anyone talk about it since. If it were of any value to UNESCO, they should surely pay attention to it.”

Even Andreyev is skeptical of Roerich’s motives and the “blatant masquerading by a megalomaniacal artist.” He quotes the Sinologist Boris Pankratov — a figure perhaps even more enigmatic than Roerich — who refers to Roerich's desire to become the king of the mythical Buddhist Kingdom of Shambhala, who would “bring salvation to mankind and become the world ruler.

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