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The emperor turned smuggler

Beijing’s Forbidden City. Getty

The Palace Museum at the Forbidden City in Beijing is the most visited museum in the world, says Sun Jiahui in The World of Chinese magazine. But it almost didn’t exist. Originally built in 1406 as an imperial compound, the building was transformed into an inventory of palace treasures after the last emperor was deposed in 1911. On hearing news of the plans, “many eunuchs panicked, having long smuggled treasures from the palace and sold them to antique dealers”. So to cover their tracks they set the palace on fire, “destroying countless relics in the process”.

The last emperor, Puyi, wasn’t surprised. At his wedding, he recalled in his memoir From Emperor to Citizen, the treasures on his wife’s phoenix coronet had been replaced by fakes before proceedings were even over. He sacked all the eunuchs, but soon resorted to smuggling himself. In his later years, Puyi sold “thousands of items” from the imperial collection, and frequently used palace artefacts as collateral to secure loans. “Such mortgages and trades happened several times every year,” he wrote. “Especially during festivals when I needed to spend money.”