I’m taking a class on Taiwan Through the Lens of Its Museums, in which we talk about museology and the history of museums in Taiwan. In addition to guest lectures and assigned readings, we also have trips to museums. There’s definitely pattern here where I sign up for classes that go on trips.
So far we’ve only gone to on campus museums, like Iso House and the NTU History Museum, but last weekend we went on our furthest one–National Palace Museum! It was very, very, very far. As in, over an hour and a half away, with bus transfers. As the bus drives on and on, I notice the city skyline diminishing into rural Shilin, then suddenly there’s a massive open space with grand arches and tall gates. There are tourists and students everywhere, even on this dreary day.
Welcome to the National Palace Museum, ranked 6th most visited art museum in the world in 2014.
The bulk of the collection is objects from imperial China. After the last emperor was overthrown, the collection was made open to the public in Beijing in 1925. When the Japanese invaded in 1933, the Nationalist government packed up the most treasured items into 20,000 crates and shipped them to Shanghai. When the civil war with Communists started, these crates were shipped over to Taiwan in 1948. They’ve been here ever since.
There are 3 National Palace Museums: this one in Taipei, one in southern Taiwan at Chiayi, and another in the original location in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Each one has a unique agenda and claim to legitimacy. Of the three, this one is the most well known, and is probably the museum in Taiwan.
Happy stone lion is happy to be in the most famous museum in Taiwan.
Just from the map alone, you can tell how massive the grounds is. There’s a garden, around 6 standalone buildings, a restaurant, a lake… No wonder it’s so far out away from everything.
Our class met at B1, where you can see the status of Sun Yat-San, who was the one to transform the private art collection of the Qing dynasty into a public one. To commemorate him, NPM was opened on his birthday.
To address both the massive crowds and the need to keep one’s voice down inside a museum, each of us received a headset wirelessly connected to our English tour guide’s mic. T e c h n o l o g y ~
We had only 30 minutes, so our expert English guide gave us a rapid-fire introduction to a few of the most important sections.
The first is this bronze cauldron. Bronze alloy was really high tech back then (probably more high tech than we think wireless transmission is), so only the upper class would get them made. The cauldrons would be used to catch water as the emperor or noble washed his or her hands. Anthropologists think this cauldron was never used like that though, because inside the cauldron is inscribed a peace treaty. The treaty delineates new boundaries after one country invaded another.
The concept of branding was well and alive in imperial China! Certain skilled families would make bronze with specific patterns so that others would be willing to pay more for their artistry. Clever, that. “It’s like CoCo Chanel,” said our guide.
The next is this clay (possibly porcelain?) lady. Though artists back then didn’t understand why, they knew that clay from different mountains would yield different colors. This lady is dressed in exotic clothes, like boots that were meant for horse riding. Her hairstyle, dress, and figure reflects beauty standards of the time.
Then we went to an exhibit that contains artwork from Emperor Qianlong on his various southern tours of Taiwan. There are Chinese paintings, and calligraphy–my favorite!!
This one was his favorite Chinese painting. He loved it so much he wrote comments all over it, which is okay to do if you’re the emperor, apparently. Notice how all the words are different sizes, and the handwriting is different too. Clearly each one was written at different times, with different emotions.
It made me so happy to see how well the ink has been preserved. You can see the difference in ink shade and intensity, and the two red stamps spell out his name. I have to admit his calligraphy is pretty good.
Plot twist! It turns out the painting he wrote one isn’t the original, it’s a fake. So rejoice, Chinese painting aficionados! The original painting has been found and does not have his scribbles all over the place.
Our last stop on the tour is at this ivory piece. Thanks to micro cameras, the museum has determined that there are at least 20 concentric spheres inside, possibly more. Because no splits can be seen, the artist must have carved away each sphere while keeping the ivory intact, like an ancient version of the unibody Macbook.
Each sphere is free to rotate on its own, and every layer has slightly different patterns. It’s a really incredible piece up close.
After our tour ended, we were free to walk around by ourselves. Of course I hurried back up the carpeted red steps to the calligraphy section. I don’t even need the Chinese paintings this time, even though they’re quite nice on the wall.
The current exhibit is The Ancient Art of Writings. There are works from each major period of the Chinese language. Because Chinese characters have evolved so much over the years, the styles are broken into 5 main fonts, starting from the oldest: Zhuan, Li, Kai, Xing, and Cao.
Zhuan font is the earliest, and it came from the inscriptions on turtle shells. It is long, rounded, often symmetric on the left and right, and quite rectangular. It also is the most pictorial of the fonts, in that many characters are modifications to the item’s symbolic sketch.
This one shows Zhuan (right column), and Li (left column) side by side, so you can see how the same character looks different as it evolved. Li is the first font I learned when writing calligraphy (link to my calligraphy portfolio), and its special feature is thicker strokes, as well as long horizontal strokes that end like a swan’s tail. It is generally more flat than Zhuan.
I just realized I don’t have any pictures of Kai shu, most likely because it looks most like modern Chinese typography and I’m not that interested in it. But later fonts Xing and Cao are more fluid, and you start to see the strokes connected to each other instead of completely separated.
The spacing, too, between characters became less rigid. Ancient kerning! You can see that some characters are larger than others, and certain sets of words are linked together by thin ink lines that are left when the brush jumps quickly from one character to another.
Also notice the slight smudges at the top of the document–ah, the struggles of moving your hand around when the ink has not yet dried on the paper. Calligraphy uses a special absorbent called XuanZhi, but even then it takes some time before the ink is completely set.
Isn’t this gorgeous? I love Xing shu, it’s like dancing on black waters.
After looking at the calligraphy, I wondered over to the gift shops. There are multiple gift shops dedicated to various exhibits, as well as a museum-wide gift shop in B1. Then I headed back out through the main doors, taking in the grand walkway view from the top. Imagine being an empress and watching your subjects march up this long, exposed path every day!
PS You can find the miniature version of this bronze piece inside the museum. Or rather, this is a gigantic version of a prized bronze piece inside the museum. I wonder if someone has ever tried to hide the smaller version inside this one.