Dokodemo Door!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Journey to Taipei, Day 2

Day 2 was the day I was really looking-forward to: Visiting the National Palace Museum, which truly deserves its reputation as being one of the world's finest art collections.

If you go to the Forbidden City in Beijing, it is a grand-scale complex. There, you can spend hours walking around in admiration of the buildings and how it's all laid-out. But where's the neato stuff?

Right? The jade. The ceramics. The artwork. There are some items on display, but not nearly as many as you'd expect. The complex feels rather empty. So where's the stuff??

It is here! Back in the '30s, the vast art collection (including rare books, furniture, and so on) was loaded onto trains and evacuated from Beijing so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the Japanese army. Then, during the civil war of the late '40s, it was evacuated to Taiwan to place it out of the reach of the Maoists.

Currently, only 1% of it is on display with the rest being sealed-away in vaults. Ownership of the priceless collection is currently disputed, with Beijing claiming that the entire set has been looted. As a result, the artwork almost never goes on tour abroad, lest it be impounded under the auspices of international treaties governing stolen artifacts. The last time it left Taiwan was in 2008, when bits of it got a special waiver to be on display in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

So, really, I considered this a very special kind of visit. I couldn't take pictures, but the museum website can be seen here.

One doesn't need to know a lot about Chinese history to appreciate this museum. To be sure, it certainly helps to know the difference between the Tang dynasty and the Yuan dynasty, but it's not a wholly necessary kind of prerequisite to enjoy what you see. The collection has so many one-of-a-kind items which span so many centuries that you could pick a case at random and find something of great interest.

Okay, so you want to see the official jade seals of the Emperor Qianlong? They got 'em.

You want groundbreaking examples of innovations in Ming and Qing porcelain cloisonné, with nary a crack, from the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen? They got 'em.

You want the Tibetan Dragon Sutra, printed in 108 volumes, in gold ink? They got 'em.

And so it went on and on like that. Really, the stuff is so interesting, part of you wants to press your nose against the glass.

And if that isn't enough of a sell, I should mention here that one of the top draws to this museum is a piece of jasper-- a chunk of dry, cold stone-- which has been carved, dyed and polished to very, very realistically resemble... a chunk of barbecued pork good enough to eat.

Come on, anybody can appreciate this.

So, after leaving the museum in northern Taipei, we were in a good position to see the Shilin night market, the city's largest.

This place was a lot of fun. You can get all manner of food. Buy clothes, shoes, trinkets, foot-massages, basically anything you want. It's a walking buffet; you can even find extra-pungent examples of a famous Taiwanese specialty: stinky tofu. And, no, that's not a mis-translation.

It's a fun evening out and you just can't eat in one place.

Next up: Longshan temple and the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall!


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