Sunday, March 5, 2017

Taipei and the National Palace Museum

A few weeks ago we headed north to Taipei to see the National Palace Museum.  It was also an occasion to try out the high-speed rail system, since I would have to use it to fetch Laura's sister Rachel from the airport a few days later.  We traveled the other American family from Corning, who were going up to see the Taipei Zoo.

It's about 20 minutes (and US$15) by cab to the HSR station, which is distinct from the regular rail station.  It's very new and kinda resembles more an airport than a rail station.  For 800元 and change you can ride in the business-class car, which is pretty nice.  There are only two seats per side of the aisle, so no chance of getting stuck in a middle seat.  The seats are spread out a bit more, and attendants bring you a baked good snack and beverage of choice.  They'll also collect your trash, and you can borrow one of a dozen newspapers, one or two in English.  The ride is very smooth and very swift (up to 300 km/h), and you can be from one end of the island to the other in a couple hours.

Once in Taipei (the architecturally famous Taipei Station), we parted ways with our friends and hopped in a cab.  I had a wad of cards I had written out with desired (as well as contingency) locations, and this works pretty well most of the time.  The museum is on the outskirts of the city in a park in a picturesque setting.  Despite being told Saturday was a good day to go to avoid tour groups, it was thickly peopled and there were any number of guided tours being loud and getting underfoot.

The original National Palace Museum was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, but during the Civil War and then World War II, the Nationalists (Kuomintang/Guomindang, or KMT) crated up the jewels of Chinese civilization and carted it around behind them as the fortunes of war moved the army lines back and forth.  In 1949, the Nationalists lost the mainland to Mao's Communists, and they evacuated (most) of the goods to Taiwan.  So this is the place to see Chinese antiquities.

Alas, the museum is not large enough to display all the collection, or even a large part of it.  Indeed, it doesn't have the density of items I'd have liked, and I suspect this is because of security.  You see, the collection is a bone of contention with the Red Chinese, who would like very much to have it back.  Not that they would steal.  But everything is behind glass and the glass cases take up a lot of real estate.  (It also left me wondering how awesome the inside of those cases must smell--like an antiques store x100.)

What we did see however was of very good quality.  There were neolithic objects, including tool blades made from jade, which tells you something about the durability of jade.  Then jade bi (pronounced "bee") discs from the Xia through Zhou dynasties, whose ritual uses we're still trying to enumerate.  Ritual bronze pots (called ding) and bells were all the rage in the Shang through Han dynasties.  A whole range of fine houseware ceramics from the Han through Qing dynasties.  There was, alas, but one three-color glazed Tang horse on display.  Representative items from 3,500 years of Chinese writing, from oracular script on slats to Qin writing reform, to rubbings of Han funeral inscriptions, and medieval through modern ink paintings.  Bronze mirrors throughout the ages.  And there was a collection of Qing furniture, which included a very impressive wooden folding screen with translucent jade panels inlaid.

The thing, though, that drew the biggest crowds was the Jade Cabbage.  Nobody in the West has every heard of this thing, but the Chinese are wild about it.  It was made in the late Qing dynasty in the 19th century, and it's a very delicate carving of a Chinese cabbage, the color of the stone changing from white at the bottom to emerald green at the top.  On the side is a whimsical grasshopper, pause for a bite.  It's nice, though why it's so iconic is a mystery to me.  I suspect it's a bit like the Mona Lisa: we're told to love it, so we do.  But I can think of better paintings, to my taste.  A companion of the Jade Cabbage is the Jade Meatwad (title mine).  It is a carving of a piece of fatty meat perched upon a pat of rice, and as with the cabbage, the color changes from white at the bottom, to pink and then red at the top.  This was more impressive, I thought, for it's verisimilitude.  It looked perfectly edible.

We rendezvous'd with our friends for dinner at the Taipei 101, a skyscraper that for a time in the Aughts was the tallest building in the world.  Due to the effect of foreshortening, it looks less impressive at the bottom than from miles away.  In all, it's 1,667 feet from steps to spire.  Attached is a luxury shopping mall, and we had come for a Michelin-starred dumpling restaurant.  Alas, we could not find it, and I felt mildly put out.  But we did finally settle on a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, which seemed to satisfy everyone (though Laura mostly stuck to tamago and inari).  As the sushi slowly wends past, you grab what you like, the price of which is indicated by color of plate.  At the end of the meal, the waiter counts your plates to calculate the bill.  Where we were seated we could also see the chefs at work, and our friends ordered several custom pieces, made to order.

Full up on rice and raw sea creatures, we decided to check out a jade market nearby.  (Because obviously we hadn't seen enough jade that day.)  In contrast the Taichung jade market, this was in what looked like a coverted parking garage, with wobbly tables and buzzing fluorescent lights.  And though a lot of vendors had packed up for the day, there were still deals to be had.  And we had several funny, friendly interactions with the shopkeepers.  Laura got herself a pair of earrings and a pendant, and our friends waddled out ladened with a veritable trove of treasures.

We caught a cab back to Taipei Station, then got back on the train.  I was happy for my tea and snack, and somewhere to rest my complaining back.  I was also now well-prepared to get to the airport to pick up Rachel two days later.  The story of her visit we'll let her tell in her own guest post.

No comments:

Post a Comment