Chinese Cultural History over eight millennia
A long queue has already lined up in front of the exhibition room. I guess I’m right here, in the third floor of Taipei’s National Palace Museum, where they display the most precious and popular piece out of almost 700,000 exhibits. That piece that every single visitor to this museum, which was the sixth-most-visited museum in the world with more than six million guests in 2015, wants to see. It is…
Cabbage. It might sound ridiculous, but actually this cabbage is made out of jade and the unknown craftsman has even carved a grasshopper and a locust onto the vegetable. “Eternally fresh”, the Jadeite Cabbage is described on the signpost next to it. I look at it with mixed feelings. Of course, this jade piece of bokchoy has been sculpted by a skillful master and I don’t want to be a philistine, but in the end it is still a cabbage, right? Hard to believe that this exhibit is THE mandatory must-see item in a collection of 700,000 pieces… The situation is similar with the meat-shaped stone which is displayed next to the Jadeite Cabbage in the spacious exhibition hall. For all I know, there should be a lot more to see in this extraordinary museum.
But first things first, let’s start with a few bits and pieces of background information:
Background and History of the National Palace Museum
The art treasures of the National Palace Museum have had a long and turbulent history. Especially during the past century, they have never really come to rest. At first, they were relocated during the 1930s from Beijing to Shanghai, then later to Nanjing and further westward in order to protect them from being seized by the Japanese invaders. Later, during the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang kept the treasure at their respective bases and eventually took a big part of it with them when they fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan in 1949. This is still regarded as theft by the Communist Party of China and led to an even more tense relationship between both sides of the Taiwan Strait during the following centuries, even lasting until today.
In Taiwan, the cultural assets were at first stored in Beiguo, a mountain village near Taichung. However, it was clear that these artefacts needed a representative stage to be displayed in a proper manner, so the National Palace Museum was commissioned and finally opened its gates in today’s location in northern Taipei in 1965.
You can get there easily by taking a bus from MRT station Jiantan. Just follow the signs, there are plenty of buses running to the Palace Museum. They stop in front of the extensive stairway leading up to the museum. Entrance fee is 250 NT$. An audio guide is available, but not necessarily needed as the most important pieces and exhibitions are well described in English language.
Sunday – Thursday: 8:30 – 18:30
Friday & Saturday: 8:30 – 21:00
Layout and exhibits of the National Palace Museum
The Palace Museum consists of three levels which focus on artworks made of different materials (e. g. jade, bronze, glass, ceramics, other gemstones, etc.), of different types from different regions all across China and spanning a period of over 8,000 years’ time. The pieces had been collected until 1911 and the largest share of the treasure originates from the time of Qing dynasty. What makes the collection so special is the fact that most of the exhibits had been collected or commissioned by the Chinese Emperors themselves, so it contains only the most precious or artful pieces of each era.
Chinese history with its many dynasties can be complicated for laymen and main street tourists like me who haven’t opted for sinology at university. For all of those folks, it is recommended to visit the exhibition room to the left behind the security check first: Here, you will find a gallery providing a timeline for an overview of Chinese dynasties over the centuries and millennia, also compared to other advanced civilizations in the world. This should be helpful for a short time, but most likely you will end up later in one of the exhibitions, again wandering when the hell the Tang dynasty had its heyday. Don’t worry, this is totally understandable. However, I am convinced that Chinese visitors will easily be able to process the information given to classify the respective piece of art into its historical and geographical background correctly. I guess this is part of the Cultural Chinese DNA, which I find very admirable.
Third floor: Jade and Bronze
After your initial familiarization, I recommend to go straight up to the most popular pieces on the third floor and to make your way down from there. In addition to the Jadeite Cabbage and the Meat-shaped Stone, there is a permanent exhibition displaying jade artworks from different eras. The exhibition explains how artworks are sculpted out of the precious material and why the Chinese believe that there is a “spiritual power” within jade. My favorite pieces in this exhibition are the “Jade Duck”, the “Green Jade Screen” and the “Pig-Dragon”, dating from the late Hongshan culture (ca. 4700 – 2900 BC).
In the other wing, jars, tools, instruments, weapons and other exhibits made from bronze can be found. I learn that initially bronze was only used for ritual ceremonies, but later also quite profane as tableware and decoration (e. g. chandeliers). The two most-important exhibits in this section are the antique Zongzhou bronze bell and the bronze bowl of ruler Mao, both dating from the Western Zhou period and therefore at least 2,750 years old! The special thing about the bronze bell with its 36 spores is the fact that it was commissioned by King Li himself, as an inscription on its top proves. The bowl, however, is famous for the fact that the 500-character-long inscription on its inside is actually the longest engraving known on an antique artwork.
As the not-overly-huge museum owns by far more pieces than could ever be displayed at the same time (actually, only 3,000 pieces can be displayed at a time, which means roughly 0.5% of the total fund!), each floor shows seasonally rotating special exhibitions.
Second Floor: Porcelain, Clay and Calligraphy
The second floor features porcelain, ceramics and pieces of pottery made from clay.
The latter includes among others the skillfully modelled effigy of a well-nurtured lady and the Tang-dynasty statue of Lokapala, the “Guardian King”. In the porcelain section, naturally, the main attraction are the world-famous and iconic blue-and-white vases originating from Ming dynasty (plus some more from Qing dynasty).
The other wing on the second floor covers the history and development of Chinese script and calligraphy. It also exhibits masterful meter-long landscape paintings (e. g. displaying the Yellow River region).
First Floor: Beds, Books, Buddhism
Back on the ground floor, you will find graven images and gilded Buddhist bronze statues as well as precious books and furniture from the Qing era.
Conclusion: Is a visit to the National Palace Museum a must-do?
In conclusion, it is very clear that the National Palace Museum is of highest cultural value – not only for Chinese culture. However, “Western” visitors usually might only be able to grasp a part of it.
Visitors who don’t like to visit museums at all will feel misplaced here, too, as they typically also lack connection to Chinese history and culture. Hence, this is why those people could confidently refrain from visiting the National Palace Museum, pretty much like every other museum in the world (what a shame!), and go to Din Tai Fung to have their tastebuds pampered instead.
For all other visitors, I warmly recommend a visit of around two to three hours, so that you have enough time to marvel at the artworks without having to rush. And then go to Din Tai Fung afterwards 😉
Have you been to Taipei yet? If so, have you visited the National Palace Museum? What did you think about your visit and the museum itself? What were your favorite pieces, what was rather a closed book to you? I would love to know your opinion, so please leave a comment below. Thank you!