Taiwan’s Heritage

Taiwan as we know it today was founded in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist forces fled from mainland China at the conclusion of their civil war against Mao’s Communist party. With him, Chiang Kai-shek brought thousands of pieces of artwork from China’s Forbidden City that had once belonged to members of the Imperial family (he wasn’t able to evacuate everything that he wanted, but he did get most of the best treasures from Beijing). This art was eventually used to bolster the Nationalist party’s claim that it was the sole legitimate Chinese government, since it was preserving Chinese traditional culture while Mao was destroying art left and right during the Cultural Revolution. So in the 1960s, the government in Taiwan built a massive museum — the National Palace Museum — to house its treasures:


If you are going to claim to be the one and only Chinese state — even though you are on a tiny island south of the Chinese mainland– this is the way to do it. This is building on a grand scale.


The building divides its art into four main categories: ceramics, jade, metalwork, and paintings and calligraphy. Inside, the rooms are surprisingly small and incredibly crowded. This art is famous — as far as Chinese art goes, you just won’t find much better in a single location — and the tour groups pour in within hours of the museum’s opening. I was glad that my student docent from the Taipei American School, April, and I started our morning early.

April first took me to see the ceramics:

I am always a fan of art that involves animals. Also, that Tang dynasty horse is being ridden by a woman playing polo! Who knew that women played polo (or any sports) in the ninth century?

The Chinese have a long and rich tradition of making beautiful pots and glazes, and the ceramics galleries are rightfully popular. Even with our early arrival, we had to wade our way through the masses to see these doucai (“competing colors”) chicken cups from the Ming dynasty:


Just one of these cups sold for $36 million at an auction in 2014. These are very valuable chickens.

Also famous, but much less appealing to me, is this Song dynasty baby pillow:


This is actually a pillow — something that you would put your head on and hope that you would give birth to a boy child (always preferable to a girl in China). It looks truly uncomfortable.

Pieces that I liked in the ceramics hall included these deer from the Ming dynasty …


… these peaches from the Qing dynasty …IMG_0135

… and these crazy dragons (fun fact: Chinese dragons always have five toes):

IMG_0128We next went over to the hall featuring bronze and metalwork. I’m not much of a metal aficionado, but it’s hard not to be impressed by this set of giant bells from the “Mid Spring and Autumn Period” (7th to 6th centuries BCE):


I also found myself drawn to these wine vessels from the mid-Warring States period …

… this incense burner from the Han dynasty …


… and these things:


Now these might look like much, but they are a measure (on the left) and a weight (on the right) from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE). This short-lived government was the first in China to standardize weights and measures, a hugely important accomplishment. What else did the Qin do? Well, they unified China, started building the Great Wall, standardized writing, built a real system of roads, developed a meritocratic system of bureaucracy, created canal and irrigation systems, and ordered the creation of the now-famous terra cotta warriors. Not bad for just 15 years in power.

Two of the most famous pieces in the National Palace Museum are the jadeite cabbage (note the bug in the “leaves”) …


… and the prosaically-named “meat-shaped stone”:


The jade and other carvings section of the museum is jam-packed full of people, all there to see things like these:

My favorite carvings included an ancient ornament, circa 3,000 BCE (such great eyes)…


,,, this collection of thin-as-paper wooden cups …


… and this curio box, which contains miniature versions of real artworks created to entertain the emperor:


My last stop in the museum was the paintings section. I spent a long time studying the “Up the River During Qingming” scroll, a masterpiece of detail that shows life along the river in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. It’s impossible to photograph the whole thing in one shot — it’s many feet long — but here are a wedding procession …


… a theater performance …


… and the empresses’ boat:


A video above the scroll tries to bring the scenes on the scroll (like this martial arts competition)…


… to life:

The real beauty of this scroll comes when you look very, very closely. In this window, for example, you can see a painter at work…


… and in a scene Bruegel would have been proud of, you can see school in session — and, towards the right, a little boy peeing on the schoolhouse wall:


The other painting galleries were all devoted to a large exhibit on “Suzhou fakes,” paintings produced by workshops in 179-118 BCE). They may be copies, but they are also impressive in their own right:


After an excellent lunch at Silks Palace at the museum, I walked a few short blocks to a very different place: the Shung Ye Museum of Formosan Aborigines. This small, compact museum is dedicated to the original indigenous groups of Taiwan, at least nine of which (depending on how you classify them) still exist today.


These indigenous people inhabited the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) at least 4,000 years before the Han Chinese began moving in during the 1600s (the term “indigenous people,” by the way, has replaced the more discriminatory term “mountain compatriot” that was used prior to the 1980s). There are about 500,000 indigenous people (out of Taiwan’s 23.5 million) still in Taiwan today.

I really loved this museum — it was manageable, quiet, well laid out, and informative. Given that these were largely fishing, hunting, and agricultural peoples, there are not many ancient artifacts, but the museum has a good collection of pottery, weapons, clothing, and music. There are also several wood carvings on display, which reveal that the serpent was sacred to many of the indigenous people:


The museum had some great ceremonial headwear. Here are a traditional headdress of the Rukai …


… another from the Paiwan …


… and my hands-down favorite, the helmet of the Yami:


The Yami believe that it is important to guard against evil spirits (Anito), and this headgear will help protect against these spirits entering the body.

It was fascinating to see these two museums contrasted against one another. They are close enough that it’s easy to do them both in one day — and you’ll still have time to get back to your hotel room for a late afternoon nap!

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