|photo by the National Palace Museum|
Michelle Jana Chan, The Daily Telegraph March 13, 2015
Protected from centuries of war and upheaval, the contents of the National Palace Museum captivate Michelle Jana Chan.
Curiously, one of the world’s greatest collections of Chinese antiquities is not in China – but across the Strait in Taiwan. In the early 20th century, the art collection of the Imperial Palace Museum, also known as the Forbidden City, was on the move. It left Beijing and criss-crossed the country for nearly 20 years in an effort to spare it from the ravages of war – firstly by Japanese forces, and then during China’s Civil War.
When in 1949, the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island of Taiwan – leaving Mao Tse-tung’s communists in control of the mainland – he took the best pieces with him. In three ships and across stormy waters, more than 600,000 of the finest and most fragile artworks were transported. Remarkably, the precious cargo arrived entirely intact.
After landing in Taiwan, the collection remained in storage until a suitable space was designed. Built in traditional imperial style, the National Palace Museum opened in Taipei in 1965. That was about the same time that the Cultural Revolution was raging on the mainland when so much of China’s ancient heritage was destroyed. Now the National Palace Museum is considered one of the world’s greatest collections of Chinese antiquities, from the Neolithic age to the Qing dynasty. Andrew Burnett, former deputy director of the British Museum, says it is “in the front rank of international museums”. Some compare it to the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Prado.
I first visited the museum when I lived in Taiwan nearly 20 years ago. At that time, there were relatively few visitors and I would often have the place to myself. But since 2008, when travel restrictions eased for mainland Chinese, visitor numbers have doubled to nearly five million a year. The museum can feel overcrowded now but there are still few visitors from outside East Asia.
Yet herein lies the accumulated art collection of China’s emperors, spanning a millennium, and including their fine taste in calligraphy, painting and porcelain. One of the museum’s most celebrated pieces is a cabbage carved from jadeite, which uses the natural colours of the stone to create the vegetable. A grasshopper is camouflaged within the ruffle of leaves.
I always loved seeing the tiny boat carved from an olive stone; so intricate it is difficult to distinguish the figures and furniture through a magnifying glass. Astonishingly, the windows of the tiny vessel can be swung open and on the boat’s base is etched the 300-character poem that inspired the artwork.
The oldest pieces – a chunky jade necklace and loop earrings – date back more than 8,000 years. From the eastern Zhou dynasty, a simple jade cup marbled with veining was used to collect morning dew and sipped in the belief it might secure immortality.
Some of the collection’s most prized pieces are made of porcelain, like the elaborate Qing vases, classic blue-and-white Ming and the 11th-century ceramics called Ju ware. The latter is described in Chinese history as the colour of the sky after rain. Only 70 pieces of Ju ware are known to exist and nearly a third of them are here. Unsurprisingly, the collection’s relocation remains controversial. While many Taiwanese believe they saved China’s art treasures, some on the mainland consider the act theft. That dissonance has continued for more than six decades. But relations are warming between the art worlds on both sides of the Strait with some groundbreaking joint exhibitions. China has lent artefacts to the National Palace Museum although Taiwan is yet to reciprocate saying they worry whether prospective loans would be returned. Until there is freer movement of the museum’s artefacts, anyone with an interest in China’s imperial history really has to make for the offbeat destination of the Taiwanese capital.
Eva Air (evaair.com) offers return flights from London to Taipei via Bangkok from £569.
Flying time and time difference
Average flight time is 13.5 hours; GMT + 8 hrs.
Where to go
The National Palace Museum (npm.gov.tw) is a 30-minute taxi ride from downtown. Open daily from 8.30am to 6.30pm with twice-daily guided tours in English at 10am and 3pm; reserve in advance online. To avoid crowds, visit during late opening hours (until 9pm) on Fridays and Saturdays. Entrance: £5.30.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel (grand-hotel.org; double rooms from £170), built in the Fifties for visiting heads of state, is still the most famous place to stay in the capital. Although in need of a facelift, it is well located for visits to the museum. Villa 32 (villa32.com; rooms from £400) is a five-suite hotel, north of the city in Beitou, with hot springs and a spa.
Where to eat/drink
The National Palace Museum has several restaurants on site including Silks Palace serving Cantonese dishes (about £12 for lunch). For a sensational cityscape view, Shin Yeh offers Taiwanese dining on the 85th floor of one of the world’s tallest buildings, Taipei 101 (£40 for dinner). Shi Yang Culture Restaurant, north of Taipei, serves a creative set menu of nouvelle Chinese and Japanese cuisine, which include edible flowers, tiny cups of fruit vinegars, and a chicken broth with lotus (shi-yang.com; £20 for lunch). After dark, join the throngs of locals at the night market in Shi Da, the downtown university area buzzing with restaurants, boutiques and bars. End the evening at Wisteria House, a traditional teahouse and former meeting place of political dissidents and artists.
Further information: eng.taiwan.net.tw
This article was written by Michelle Jana Chan from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.