Travel with me #97 : The National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan!
Dear Steemit friends :
In my recent visit to Taiwan, I had the opportunity to visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei. As a mainland visitor, it was an honour as well as a rare opportunity for me to see these imperial treasures once held inside in The Forbidden City, Beijing.
In Miss. Delicious #78, we visited the museums very own special tea house / restaurant called Silks Palace located at the same site as the museum. There, we familiarised ourselves with the traditional way of drinking tea, as well as treated ourselves to a dim-sum lunch with a very "curio" twist.
For this post, we'll be going inside the museum part of The National Palace Museum, seeing one the largest collections of ancient Chinese artifacts in the world. If you read the post about Silks Palace, then you'll recognise some of the "snacks" from the curio boxes inside the museum, most notably the Jadeite Cabbage. There are countless more priceless artifacts inside the museum, in-fact, roughly 700,000 others, collectively encompassing more than 8000 years of Chinese history.
Some people call the National Palace Museum the Louvre of Asia, and just like it's European counterpart, you could spend several days exploring the National Palace Museum, combing through each of it's galleries in full detail, understanding the foot-prints of each epoch, leading to the significance of the articles on display. For those of you who intend to do that, this post will serve as a teaser, otherwise, let's move on and start checking this place out!
Background and History of the National Palace Museum.
Since my childhood, we have been taught a version of history that paints a mostly negative narrative of Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomingtang party. In the modern day, ripples of that history continue to affect political relationships between the two nations sharing a common language but fairly different cultural mentality. Although the relationship has improved somewhat in the last 3 decades, the democratized Taiwanese fall in and out of Beijing favour depending on who get's elected to power every couple of years. The relationship strengthens when KMT party is in power, and weakens with the DPP in control. Currently the DPP is in control, and with that, a negative tone between the two has returned. At the peak of the two side's relationship, Taiwan could expect up to 4 million visitors per year from China alone, most of them paying a visit to the National Palace Museum.
Whilst the number of visitors from China has significantly dropped. The museum remains the most popular attraction for those that do make it on to the island. To many, a visit to the NPM is a completion of their visit to the National Palace in Beijing, completing their experience , making it "whole".
Why were the artifacts separated from the National Palace?
During the 1930's, the Japanese threat in the North of China became a growing concern. For fear of losing the national treasures to the Japanese, the management of the Palace Museum in Beijing ordered the majority of the collection to be packed up into crates (20,000 in total) and transported further south to Nanjin. The plan was intercepted by the enemy and the crates were transported to Shanghai instead. There, they stayed for the next eight years whilst the Japanese threat was warded off, world war two ended as well as the Chinese civil war. Chiang Kai-Shek took 22% of the pieces with him to Taiwan in exile, including the Jadeite Cabbage and a large portion of the very best pieces in the collection.
For many years, the partial collection remained in storage with the assumption that CKS would take them back to China. By the 1960's, it became clear that Taiwan would become his permanent home and thus work began on building a museum to exhibit these national treasures.
The National Palace Museum was built in the Waishuanxi, Shilin District, well shielded by the local forestation and low mountainous terrain of the area. The first thing you'll notice is that the actual museum building is up against the side of a mountain and a good 5 to 10 minute walk from the start of the entrance.
To reach the main hall, you have to walk through a large Paifang archway, and up a number of steps.
Because the National Palace Museum and the Forbidden City in Beijing are derived from the same institution but later split, the design of the NPM is modelled on the architecture of the Forbidden City, incorporating imperial designs from a feudal society.
The main building has four floors, three of which are used for exhibitions and one floor is used as a resting lounge.
The sheer number of artifacts brought over from China, as well as a constant supplementation of the collection, has meant that the museum has undergone further expansions several times since it's establishment to create room for more and more exhibits. In-fact, in the year 2000, it was decided that the NPM would expand to a second branch located in Chiayi County. This would later on be known as the Southern Branch, whilst the original would be called the Northern Branch.
There are some really beautiful views of the traditional looking buildings blending in with the shallow mountain ranges in the background.
This column is generally referred to as Huabiao, and is a kind of stone pole used for ceremonial purposes. On top, you can see it has the Chinese Guardian Lion. This style of Huabiao is frequently found outside palaces, as such, they have a more specific name called bangmu.
The horizontal wing like stone is actually meant to be a cloud. And the mythical creature above it (in this case the Lion) is meant to communicate the mood of the people below to the heavens above.
Once inside the main hall, there is a large open space where you'll find the ticket office, souvenir shop, and even a post office. The price of entry is about 250 NT which is about $10 dollars. You can also purchase a guided tour, or borrow an audio guide.
In the lower floor, there is a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen which has been placed there to commemorate his founding of the Republic of China. He is one of the few people in modern Chinese history who is respected by both the people of Taiwan and China. Above his head, you can see the characters "博爱“. These are two of Sun Yat Sen's favourite characters, portraying his life's work. Together, they represent fraternity and concern for the welfare of human beings, a quality which grants him respect by all Chinese people to this day.
Now, it's time to feast your eyes on a few of the objects in the collection which caught my eye. As you can imagine, with hundreds of thousands of items on display, it can take more than just a few days to look through everything. Still, if you know what you're more interested in, then you can pick and choose.
Jade was commonly used for sculptures in the neolithic periods of Chinese history, and is primarily considered a form of decorative art. Many sculptors would spend a life time learning how to create incredibly intricate and detailed sculptures. These are some of the better ones I saw.
Ceramics are a focal point of Chinese art development. The first examples of Chinese ceramics date back as far as the Palaeolithic area. The examples in this museum are the imperial court porcelain wares which are each handmade by the best potters of their time.
Mao Gong Ding
Like the Ding Vessel we saw outside the main building, this "Ding" is from 9th century BC. It is significant because it has the longest Chinese inscriptions of any Ding ever made, 500 to be exact. If you look carefully, you can see that the characters are not the same as the ones we use today, of course in the 9th century BC, the characters looked closer to their original bone script pictograms. I must admit, I don't really understand most of the characters myself.
The big bell is the Zong Zhou Zhong or the Bell of Zhou. It is one of the most important musical instruments commissioned by King Li of the Zhou Dynasty.
This is the star of the show, and the largest draw of all exhibits within the National Palace Museum. The cabbage is carved from a single piece of Jadeite which was half green and half white. If you look closely, you'll see the locust and katydid camouflaged in the leaves.
This along with the Mao Gong Ding and the meat shaped stone are considered the three treasures of the National Palace Museum.
I was quite surprised when I saw the piece in person. I was expecting it to be the size of an actual Chinese cabbage. I was mistaken, it's actually about the same size as my hand. The detail on the piece is very precise. Without looking carefully, you might mistaken the locust to be a real one. It's a very beautiful piece, and I think it deserves being the symbol of the museum.
Meat Shaped Stone
The final piece in the trio of National Palace Museum is the meat shaped stone. For any Chinese food gastronomers, you will recognise this as a piece of braised pork belly meat. It is hard to believe that it is infact a piece of stone carved from from Jasper.
The stone dates back to the Qing dynasty and was a part of the imperial household's collection. Because of it's close resemblance to an actual piece of braised pork belly meat, it is often associated by the famous poet and gourmand, Su Dongpo. Actually he was attributed as being the inventor of the braised pork belly dish. To this day, the dish is often called Dongpo meat.
This along side the Jadeite Cabbage are touted as the most important items in the museum. Although popular, they are actually only of moderate importance with respect to art history. Still, the Meat Shape Stone along with the other two treasures are very well received and have a permanent display at the museum.
There was also a nice video exhibit of the evolution of Chinese writing from it's original oracle bone script etched on turtle shells and bones, to the Shang Dynasty's Greater Seal and so on... till today's Traditional and Simplified scripts.
Can you guess what the characters mean from their evolving pictograms? (Chinese people are disqualified!)
Check out my video tour!
And that wraps up the tour of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. For me, it was a significant visit because some of the history surrounding the museum was taught to me during my childhood. It wasn't until growing up that I really had an opportunity to think about the gravitas of the situation in China leading to the disbursement of its most prized treasures.
To the ignorant eye, many of the treasures here would appear to be no different from the mass produced that we see selling in souvenir shops, but let me remind you that many of these were crafted thousands of years ago by hand. Each taken a skilled craftsmen years of their life to complete. Many of the items would be considered their life's proudest achievement.
All things considered, it now makes sense to me why the collection has been under protection and indeed contention for the best of a century, without which, many would have been destroyed or lost. They are all important relics of a bygone era of Chinese dynastic rule.
The National Palace Museum is definitely worth a visit. Even if museums are not your usual fancy, there will be lots of fascinating bits of history to learn and of course many amazing ancient artifacts each with their own tale to tell.