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Taipei art: bringing the past to life

On this small island of only about 14,000 square miles (population at last count 17 1/2 million) there is a cache of art, artifact, and history unparalleled anywhere -- and not very well known.

There are more than 600,000 Chinese art treasures in the National Palace Museum here, some dating back 4,000 years. Of all these, probably 10,000 are on view at any one time, although the the museum's curators change the displays frequently. And always jades, bronzes, and portraits are included.

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Jades, of course. There is no other race in the world today that has focused so much of its skill on first nephrite and, in later days, jadeite -- carving both trinkets and ritual objects and objects d'art from these stones. Nephrite is the longer-known jade which takes an almost soapy polish and is found in mellow colors; jadeite was discovered more recently, and its colors are higher, its polish more brilliant. Which tells you that ritual axes and sword ornaments , as well as brush holders and vases of long ago, have to have been fashioned from the less spectacular stone, nephrite.

In the museum there are examples of each. Perhaps the most famous -- and some say the most valuable carved jade in the collection -- is the Chinese cabbage, carved from a pebble of green and white jade with a spot of red. The white is the stalk, the green the leaves, and a couple of grasshoppers are carved into the red. That this is jadeite dates it later than many treasures, and indeed it is allocated to the Ch'ing Dynasty, which was overthrown in 1912. Jadeite first came to China (which, as far as is known, has never mined nephrite or jadeite wihtin its own borders) from Burma in any quantity in 1784, as nephrite had done before it, and continues to do, although rumor says that both stones are being mined out. Nephrite carving was already a thousands-of-years-old craft when jadeite was discovered.

Why chinese craftsmen became interested at all in using jade and in giving it almost mystical qualities is lost in the mists of those thousands of years, but the fact that the stone became a symbol of truth and beauty for them has now become known worldwide. Think China, think jade.

Thus when the communist takeover of the Chinese mainland was imminent, the Chinese (who became the Taiwan-Chinese) gathered together the treasures that once had been in the palace in Peking, including the jades, and whisked them off to Taiwan -- with the protection of American warships.

This is the collection now housed in the National Palace Museum of Taipei, which was built for the purpose in 1965.

Even the most casual observer notes how alike many jade forms are to bronzes and stone items which often preceded them by thousands of years. In the Palace Museum this is one of the pleasures of research. Na Chih-liang, commenting on it, says the displays and research are conducted "so as to emphasize the long history of the nation." The museum, he adds, "is able to promote scientific study and help develop cultural educaion." The preface to the catalog of the collection speaks also of opening up "the subtleties" of these cultural treasures.

Chinese history comes alive here. It is long and is often distinguished by early surprises. For instance, the discovery some 85 years ago now of the Shang-Yin oracle inscriptions carved on some tortoise shells and ox bones -- which proved to be about 3,700 years old -- provided evidence of how early Chinese people were already using a form of true writing. In the museum there are numerous striking examples of Chinese calligraphy of later dates, reproductions of it on sale at the museum -- and nowhere else -- just for wall hangings.

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When your eye catches, perhaps, a light greenish-blue ceramic pillow dating from the thousand-year-old Sung Dynasty, your breath catches, too, as you realize how skilled these people were when their country was almost unknown to the rest of the world. And it would be a couple of hundred years yet before Marco Polo brought back tales of this land of wonders.

One of the most evocative categories of art in the museum are the portraits and paintings. IT was 1,400 years ago that a prominent Chinese painter, Hsieh Ho, laid down some basics of painting: among them, that in addition to having rhythm and movement, a painting should have structure established by the brush, as in calligraphy. It has been pointed out that Chinese artists are mostly impressionists but not abstractionists. The real is always there. The water may have to be imagined, however, from the liveliness of the painted carp.

Most Chinese artists paint from memory tempered by their own wisdom and experience. Thus a portrait may express the essence of its subject, but not necessarily the way he looked. That goes for flowers and bamboo and those most evocative mountains that provide background in so many scrolls and paintings in this idiom. The museum is rich in them.

Then there are superb porcelains, sculptures, lacquer, enamels, tapestries, embroideries, books, and historical documents to explore here.

Each category is a study in itself, and more and more scholars are finding their way to Taipei to spend time in this magnificent museum.

The museum was built in modern Chinese style, high on a hill, with a statue of Chiang Kai-shek in a forecourt, and its imposing frontage and plateaus of worked stone give it a dominant position in its Taipei suburb. It is as grand as the enormous memorial to Chiang in the middle of the city, completed and opened only last year. Or as the Grand Hotel which dominates another hilltop in red-and- gold Chinese style.

For those wondering whether to take time out of a Far East trip to visit Taiwan, this museum and the memorial are reasons enough. There are others, too, though, among them the Taroko Gorge and the wild Kenting cliff-and-Sea area soon to be developed as a resort.

But whatever reason may be needed, do visit the National Palace Museum.It is an experience in beauty and in coming to understand a little more the Chinese thought and culture. And that could be of lasting value as China itself comes increasingly to the fore among the comity of nations.

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