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How Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong Handled a Treasured Edition of Ancient China’s ‘Twenty-Four Histories’

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: June 13, 2024
Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (L) and nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (R), both pictured in the 1930s. (Image: Public Domain)

The two most important historical figures of 20th-century China are undoubtedly Chiang Kai-shek — who led the Republic of China during its war of resistance against Imperial Japan — and Mao Zedong, the communist revolutionary who usurped the republic and established a totalitarian dictatorship over the world’s most populous country.

Despite their different personalities, values, and lifelong entanglements, both Chiang and Mao profoundly influenced China and the fate of its people, leaving behind a political legacy that still sees the two sides of the Taiwan Strait governed separately.

Both Chiang and Mao were avid readers and intellectuals — and as leaders of their respective regimes, both had interactions with a prized treasure of ancient China: an original anthology of the Twenty-Four Histories.

However, the differing attitudes and actions with which Chiang and Mao treated this unique work of literature offers a glimpse into their respective character.

Ma Heng steadfastly defends the Twenty-Four Histories

In ancient China, each imperial dynasty would compile and publish official histories of past eras. Since a remote age, scholars tasked with creating these records saw the truthful recounting of the past as their sacred duty, sometimes even giving their lives for their profession.

As of the end of the Qing Dynasty, there were 24 such Histories published, giving China the longest and continuous written records of any human civilizations. The final volume covers the History of Ming (1368–1644); no History was written for the Qing Dynasty, which was replaced by the Republic of China (ROC) after its collapse in 1911.

The copy of Twenty-Four Histories read by both Mao and Chiang was from the era of Qing emperor Qianlong, who reigned throughout most of the 1700s. After the establishment of the ROC, it was held by the Chinese government as a national treasure. Following the Japanese invasion of China, the republican authorities, led by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) relocated west to Chongqing.

Along with the influx of people, equipment, and supplies came countless prized artifacts from Beijing’s Forbidden City — the imperial palace — including the Twenty-Four Histories.

At one point during the war, Chiang Kai-shek wanted to peruse the Histories. He personally wrote a loan request to Ma Heng, the scholar with custody over the documents, and instructed his secretary, Chen Bulei (陳布雷), to seek out Ma Heng for the books.

Ma Heng (馬衡), born in 1881 and passed away in 1955, was a native of Yin County, Zhejiang. He was the second president of the Xiling Society of Seal Arts, an expert in epigraphy and archaeology, and a calligrapher and seal carver. Proficient in the stone classics of the Han and Wei dynasties, he served as the director of the National Palace Museum (originally in Beijing) during the war against Japan, overseeing the museum’s relocation to the west.

Ma agreed to Chiang’s request, but only on the condition that the military leader sign a guarantee agreeing to return the collection within a month. This angered secretary Chen, who knew there was no way Chiang could be expected to digest the literature in such a short time. Chiang himself noted, “this is the same as refusing to lend me the books.”

Three days passed, and Ma Heng delivered a modern edition of the Histories to the Nationalist leader. This angered Chen even further. “Mr. Ma, is this what Mr. Chiang asked for?”

Unperturbed, Ma retorted, “If Mr. Chiang wishes to read the Histories, this edition will do. If he wants the Qianlong edition so badly, it means he has some other intention.”

In short, Ma Heng was concerned that Chiang Kai-shek would abuse his authority and add the Histories to his personal collection after “borrowing” the set.

Though Chen Bulei was himself an experienced writer and scholar, he could not find any fault with Ma Heng. When Chiang Kai-shek heard of the exchange, he stated, “The treasures of the Forbidden City can only be entrusted to Ma Heng. With him in charge, the nation can be at ease.”

When others tried to badmouth Ma Heng and have him replaced, Chiang ignored them.

Mao seizes the Twenty-Four Histories for himself

Less than a decade later, reeling from the destruction and instability brought on by the war against Japan, the Chinese government under the Kuomintang was unable to effectively resist the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. By the late 1940s, the outcome of the civil war was clear, and in 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed a “People’s Republic” from the ramparts of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The ROC relocated to the island of Taiwan, where it still governs today.

An intellectual and former librarian, Mao soon tasked his own secretary, Tian Jiaying (田家英), to obtain a copy of the Twenty-Four Histories.

Tian Jiaying went to great lengths and finally found a complete 1923 thread-bound photolithographic edition published by the Zhonghua Book Company in Shanghai at an antique shop in Liulichang. Thrilled, he immediately purchased it and brought it to Mao Zedong’s study.

To Tian’s surprise, Mao Zedong frowned upon seeing it and said, “Take it all away; I don’t want to read this kind of thing. I’d rather read a book printed during the Qianlong era than one printed by the Kuomintang!”

It was then that Tian realized what Chairman Mao really wanted: the Qianlong edition of the Twenty-Four Histories, which were kept in the Wuying Hall of the Forbidden City. The next day, Tian Jiaying went to the Palace Museum, whose director was still Ma Heng.

He explained his request, hoping to obtain the Qianlong edition of the Histories for Mao.

Ma Heng laughed icily, “He must be dreaming! Every item here is a national treasure; no private individual can touch them. Borrowing them [for personal reasons] is out of the question. If we allow this, the Palace Museum would become a private treasure trove.”

Ma’s words made Tian blush with embarrassment and filled him with immense respect for his dedication and integrity. Adopting a more respectful attitude, he tried to subtly express the difficulty of his position, given Mao’s dictatorial authority.

However, just as with his earlier attitude towards Chiang Kai-shek, Ma Heng refused to budge. Tian Jiaying, seeing that even a request from Mao would not change the Palace Museum director’s mind, prepared to give up.

However, Ma Heng was unexpectedly transferred out of his position to become chief commissioner of the Beijing Cultural Relics Sorting Committee, and vacated the Palace Museum.

With Ma Heng removed, Tian easily obtained the Qianlong copy of the Twenty-Four Histories and delivered them to Mao.

Mao Zedong got what he wanted, and this edition of the Twenty-Four Histories stayed with him for life. It’s said that Mao often scribbled notes on their pages, treating these national treasures as his personal possessions.

Moreover, it remains unknown whether the Palace Museum dared or was able to reclaim this the Qianlong copy after Mao Zedong’s death.

Translated from the Chinese.