On Thursday we went to the National Palace Museum, which I’ve been hearing about from my Asia-dwelling family members for approximately forever. Located a bit outside of the center of the city in the green and hilly environs of Shilin, it’s one of the biggest collections of Chinese art in the world, with a whopping 696,000 artifacts spanning a (mere) 8,000 years of history.
Why is all this glorious stuff here in Taiwan and not in, say, Beijing? The vast riches of the Chinese empire were stored in the Forbidden City until the Japanese invasion in 1933, when the artifacts were evacuated. Returned to Nanjing after World War II, they changed hands again after Chiang Kai-shek realized that the Communists would defeat him. A total of 2,972 crates of artifacts (roughly 22 percent of the total collection) were shipped to Taiwan, representing some of the finest objects ever produced in the entirety of Chinese history. Considering the incredibly rough period of history these artifacts were evacuated in, it’s a wonder that many of these delicate, small, and exceedingly valuable pieces have survived.
Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China considers the collection to be stolen, although relations appear to be thawing somewhat in this regard — in 2009, China and Taiwan agreed to the first-ever joint exhibition of artifacts. Who knows what will happen in the future?
What matters for the purposes of this brief blog post is that you’d be a real dumbass to visit Taipei without making a visit here, to put it delicately. Prioritize appropriately.
In light of this, my dad and I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a guide for two hours, to give us some grounding in the massive scope of the exhibits and explain what we were looking at. The cost came out to $150 and I’d say it was worth it. Jennifer Tang proved to be a lovely woman with a long background in Chinese painting, and came at the exhibit with an obvious and profound affection for everything we saw — pointing out fine details or providing the background story of how one object or another came to be, and came to enter the imperial collection.
The most famous item here is probably a carved jade cabbage, which is accompanied by another piece of jade that looks remarkably like a piece of roasted meat. These two venerated art objects may sound rather pedestrian, but when you actually push through the crowd to gaze upon these Rocks That Look Like Food, you’ll be more impressed than you anticipated.
The Jadeite Cabbage, which is white at the bottom and tapers to a luxuriant green at the top, has a locust and a katydid concealed amidst the leaves, and was supposed to be a present symbolizing fertility for the Kuang-hsü Emperor’s Consort Chin. It could also be mean to “chastise fatuous officials.” Or it could be a remarkably attractive and valuable representation of a bug-infested vegetable. You make what you want of it .
Here is the Meat-Shaped Stone. You thought I was kidding, didn’t you? I knew it was a glorious work of art because it suddenly and irrevocably made me hungry.
Other highlights here include remarkably intricately carved ivory boxes, which allegedly took so long to execute that a single piece might be passed down for three generations (assuming, presumably, that three generations did not produce someone with awful hand-eye coordination). Our guide said that legend has it these fine carvers — working in mediums as tiny as peach-pits — sometimes did their work without even opening their eyes. “They had a very special feel for it,” she said, reverently.
Ritual jades from the exceedingly antique Xia and Shang dynasties were also very interesting, including facial covers and plugs for funerals. “There was always a chance that the dead would come back,” our guide said.
Paintings are of course a major draw here and the exhibits rotate regularly, and the current exhibit features Ming Dynasty master Tang Yin. His contemplative nature paintings are gorgeous, and his life story — a brilliant middle-class academic screwed by the Imperial system, a poet, an artist, and business-man — adds flavor to the works themselves. I was particularly taken with his simple renderings of bamboo, in which he used dark and light washes of ink to portray leaves shaking in a rainstorm.
If you do not have a guide, it is best to simply wander around and look at what catches your fancy. This is a wonderful place to get totally lost in, and there’s always more to see — an immense scroll here, a massive jade disc there, an exhibit of antique medical textbooks in Chinese tucked into a back gallery, and son on and so forth. There are interpretative signs in English, and many interesting interactive exhibits, as well as an audioguide.
SOME TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
It is best to come either early or rather late. The middle of the day finds the museum absolutely overrun with tourists, mostly clumping together in sardine-like tour group packs. Someone will be shouting at them and waving a flag around in your face. Avoid at all costs. (There is a brief let-up during the lunch hour). Budget at least 3 hours here, especially when factoring in queuing time if you manage to come here right at the very peak of Milling Tour Group. You can take a taxi here, or you can take the MRT to the Shilin stop and then board a shuttle bus.
There are no photos allowed and no backpacks either, but the nice ladies at the coat-check will keep your things for you unmolested. You can bring your phone in, but expect to be collared by an irate guard if you try to Instagram something — we saw this principle in action.
We liked stopping at the tea-house at the very top of the main gallery, which had a menu of noodles and light dim-sum snacks, and a good view of the little green valley that the museum is set in. It was surprisingly uncrowded around lunchtime.
Finally, the museum shops are excellent and have a pleasing selection of stuff from fine art reproductions to hilariously awesome kitsch, and you should probably know that I absolutely adore ridiculous, mildly personally humiliating souvenir opportunities. Our family now has more key-chains and magnets featuring plastic representations of a jade cabbage than we know what to do with. I also have a t-shirt with the Jadeite cabbage on it, although I picked that up at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Don’t leave Taiwan without one.