Ma Chengyuan, the former president of Shanghai’s renowned art museum who saved priceless artifacts from marauding Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, has died at age 77, the official Xinhua News Agency said Sunday.
An authority on ancient Chinese bronzes, Ma died Sept. 25, with funeral services held Saturday, Xinhua said. No cause of death was given.
Ma joined the Shanghai Museum soon after its founding in 1952 and helped select items for its original collection of about 13,000 ancient Chinese works, including bronze, porcelain, paintings, jade, calligraphy, furniture and other artifacts. He published more than 80 books and academic papers on the bronze pieces.
The collection received official protection until the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, when teenage Red Guards -- inspired by Mao Tse-tung’s call for the destruction of all remnants of pre-revolutionary China -- rampaged through the homes of Shanghai collectors. Ma slept in his office to take phone calls from desperate collectors and dispatched museum staff to protect and catalog artifacts.
Anticipating the Red Guards’ arrival at the museum, Ma ordered staff to disguise themselves as Red Guards and paint revolutionary slogans over glass display cases.
“When Red Guards arrived, we told them we were busy making revolution ourselves,” he said in a 2001 interview with the Hong Kong newspaper, South China Morning Post.
But as fighting broke out between guard factions, Ma was seized by radicals on the museum staff and imprisoned in a storage room. He was tortured by being repeatedly dropped onto the museum’s marble floor to make him confess to having sold museum property for personal gain. He never confessed and was later sent to a labor camp for Shanghai officials.
Ma returned to Shanghai in 1972 to organize an exhibition scheduled to tour the United States after President Nixon’s visit to China. In 1985, Ma was appointed director of the museum and in the early 1990s began soliciting funds and government approval for a building to transfer the collection from its rooms in a derelict former bank building.
Awarded a piece of land on a former race course in the center of town, Ma was told he would have to come up with the construction funds himself. Much of the money was donated by wealthy Hong Kong collectors, many of whom had sold their collections to the museum before fleeing in the years after the communist takeover in 1949.
The museum opened to acclaim in 1996. It now possesses more than 200,000 objects, only about 1% of which are ever on display.