Taipei — There seems little hope that, back in America, we can avoid the fiscal cliff, whatever that actually means beyond yet more proof of the fundamental brokenness of the American government. Life in coming years will be poorer and less inspiring, but it’s really usually been that way for most of human history, and to a historian, it seems clear that we were living in a dream of ever greater growth and freedom. But amid the political fratricide and death-cage approach to governance, there are things of value to focus on, maybe more so than even before. For sanity, it’s time for a culture break.
I don’t mean a break from the culture wars (as a Beltway-pundit reader might assume), but a break for actual, honest-to-goodness culture. Historically, it seems that culture flourishes in two very different periods: times of warfare, oppression, and great uncertainty; and eras of peace and tranquility. Great advances in artistic techniques and philosophy, for example, seem to emerge from the demands of war and fear about the future. On the other hand, decades of peace and the shared social certainties of a country’s greatness appear to lead to the refinement of techniques and a turn inward to work out the full possibilities inherent in art, thought, music, and the like. Though I’m sure to catch flak for this, America seems to be one of the few societies that produced rather little in great art or thought during either type of era in its history, except perhaps for the Prairie School of architecture, transcendentalism, and jazz; on the other hand, it may have been the world’s leader in cultural criticism, and its wealth made it attractive as a new home for dispossessed artists such as great conductors.
The same can’t be said for Chinese civilization, no matter what we think of China’s current government. Whether one is seeking inspiration or simply needs a break from the inane vapidity of pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle in America, a trip to Taipei to visit one of the world’s great museums is something everyone should do in their lifetime.
The National Palace Museum is itself a political creation, founded in Republican China in 1925 just a dozen years after the end of the Ch’ing Dynasty, and then split up during China’s civil war, with two branches formed, one in Nationalist Taiwan, the other in Peking (the Palace Museum).
The tale of China’s imperial treasure collection is one of the great adventures of mankind (there is no full-scale history, but a starting point is here). The family holdings of China’s Manchu rulers, comprising thousands of years of Chinese history, were barely opened to the public before being crated up in more than 20,000 cases and moved hundreds of miles by river and road to various cities during World War II and then the civil war between China’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek. Vast portions of the priceless collection narrowly escaped destruction numerous times. Once it became clear that Chiang’s Nationalists were about to lose power in 1949, they shipped 2,000 cases of the finest items to Taiwan, with objects leaving right up to moment the last Nationalist ships left the mainland, actually leaving hundreds of cases still on the docks.
The museum’s collection is arguably the world’s greatest of Chinese art, stretching from 6,000 B.C. to the post-war period and currently totaling just under 700,000 pieces (the Palace Museum in Peking has around a million items, but many are of lesser quality). While buttressed by donations and acquisitions since moving to Taiwan, its core is the treasures of the Ch’ing court, or rather, those that survived centuries of war and the ensuing plunder, theft, and destruction (as recently as 1923, nearly 6,000 irreplaceable items were wantonly destroyed in a fire set by corrupt court eunuchs seeking to hide their decades of theft). Yet of what has survived, what you will see is simply stunning, and there are few words that adequately convey the exquisite, nearly ethereal, craftsmanship of Chinese artisans. In particular, the jade, pottery, and bronze holdings are breathtaking.
China’s true artistic genius may lie in carving. The jade carvings start in Rooms 306 and 308. While you can skip the prehistoric holdings, if pressed for time, the Ming and Ch’ing pieces show the ingenuity and playfulness of artisans working with one of the world’s hardest materials. After that, line up for two famous pieces in Room 302, including the jade cabbage, a piece of irregularly colored jade that would have been scrapped if not for the flash of brilliance of its carver.
Then move on to Room 304, for what is simply the most mind-boggling collection of carvings in rhinoceros horn, wood, ivory, and other media. Be prepared to squint through magnifying glasses to see details that are literally millimeters in size, including intricate ivory chain links that are nearly too small to discern with the naked eye.
The ceramics exhibit may be the finest in the world, though only of Chinese pieces. They are down on the second floor in Rooms 201, 205, and 207. A dozen styles from just the Ming (1368–1644) and Ch’ing (1644–1912) eras alone are enough to fill an hour of your time, transfixed by the rainbow of colors that leap out from the vases, teapots, plates, and cups. But by any means, don’t miss Room 203, where there is an extraordinary exhibit of painted enamel cupware from the mid-18th century (through September 2013).
The bronzes take you to the mists of Chinese pre-antiquity and down through its Golden Age of Confucius and the Spring and Autumn Period. The power of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1050 B.C.) and Zhou Dynasty (1050–256 B.C.) bronzes from 3,000 years ago is still considered one of the world’s great achievements and artistic mysteries. Rooms 305 and 307 walk through two millennia of civilization, while a special exhibit on the Western Zhou fills rooms 103, 105, and 107 through January. Many argue that Chinese society and the state formed during the Western Zhou, so the exhibit is particularly interesting.
Chinese painting seems to be less represented, though the holdings of scroll paintings, in particular, is of the highest quality, since many were owned by the Ch’ing court. Room 210 has a changing collection that is complemented by the selection in Room 301 on calligraphy, esteemed in China as an artistic endeavor as much as a utility.
In addition, don’t miss Rooms 106 and 108, which hold a wonderful collection of the Ch’ing imperial family’s more personal items, such as inkstones, curio boxes, and furniture. These were objects prized by the emperors and their families, and were among the dazzling treasures discovered in the Forbidden City after the expulsion of the last emperor, Pu Yi, in 1924.
There is more to see, but the list above will fill an entire day (trust me on this, I spent from 9:30 to 4:30 wandering the rooms, and am going back on Thursday). Entry is equal to only $5 (160 New Taiwan Dollars), but be prepared for huge crowds, including large groups of Japanese and Koreans. Best thing to do is to go to the showcases where the crowds aren’t, hop back and forth, and forget about chronology. A taxi from downtown will cost you about $10 US, and there are coffee shops and restaurants in the museum.
Spending a day contemplating some of the most sublime art created by man is a salutary reminder that politics can make us better or worse off, but it usually isn’t the only thing in life to worry about. In fact, there may be times that the political system seems so broken that the best we can do is let it run its course, and focus on things that give much more meaning to life.