Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Taiwan - Day 6 - Taipei National Palace Museum

The Devil is in the Details. Devilishly Clever

semi-overcast 22 °C

If there's a good reason to visit Taiwan, our destination this morning would be it. It contains some of he finest cultural artefacts that epitomise the pinnacle of Chinese arts and crafts that are found nowhere else in the world. Not even in China. Of course, you know I'm talking about the National Palace Museum (NPM) that housed some - in fact most - of the Chinese national heirlooms when CKS (Chiang Kai-Sek) took with him when he fled to Taiwan. KMT may lose the country, but at least they got to keep this consolation prize of this priceless national cultural jewels. All is not lost.

Except for those who have zero interest in Chinese culture, anyone who takes only a casual interest shouldn't miss this museum while in Taipei. Most of the artefacts here will leave you with a mouthful of with oohs and aahs, and a small percentage will leave you speechless, dumbfounded by their sheer skills, and artistry.

Here're some of my favourites in my must-see list that I'm aware of long before this trip. So I made a special effort to seek them out (by the way, no photography is allowed. You can keep your bags and cameras in the cloak room).

All the headings in the following exhibits are hyperlinks to the artefacts pages in the official website.

Along the Road on Qingming Festival
This painting Can be found on the ground floor. This is probably the most famous painting in Chinese history. The West called it the Chinese "Mona Lisa", which is quite silly. There's nothing common between the two, except for their fame. For one thing, one is in the portrait orientation, while the other is in the landscape orientation. See? no similarity!

Painted in the Song Dynasty (circa 12th century). Its dimension is 24.8 cm × 528.7 cm showing detailed daily activities in Kaifeng (開封, while in TW, use the Taiwanese Chinese writing), then the ancient capital city of the Song Dynasty (and 6 other ancient dynasties). You can buy the various reproductions from the souvenir shop if you lucky enough to own a house with a long enough wall to hang it. Alternatively, buy a smaller scroll.

China Pavilion in the Shanghai World Expo showed this famous painting with a small twist. The people engaging in their daily activities (and animals) in this painting came alive with movements, thanks to computer animation. No, I didn't get to see this animated version if you read my entries on Shanghai Expo, you know I had never set foot into the China Pavilion. I'd seen it a few times on TV. Quite an interesting effect especially after you have familiar with the original static version. The digital version in fact shows this scene from dawn to dusk.

Jade Cabbage
This piece is located in Hall 302 on 3F. The hall is almost devoted to this sculpture and only a few others in it. The special quality of this object d'art lies not just in its technical skills - as impressive as this is - but in the ingenuity of the jade sculptor to turn this piece of low quality jade and its impurities and flaws into its features. The jade piece is part green and part white. This is considered not pure and therefore, not so valuable. But the sculptor had the genius to carve this stone into a Chinese cabbage (pok choy to some of you), which has white stems and green leaves, making full use of these two colours in their right places in the jade. Different imperfections and impurities of the jades were also eliminated or hidden by the shapes of the final piece. If you look closely at the exquisitely carved leaf foliage, you will spot an insect resting on the leaves. The insect is a grasshopper, which is of course, green. Admire its delicate features like legs, and antennae.

This is a bit like Blair Witch Project the movie, where the innovative use of the handheld jerky camera works that are viewed as amateurish in general turns into strength in the movie. This are two examples of how artists turn trash into treasures. Or to put it more elegantly, but less accurately, transmuting lead into gold.

NPM puts a spot light on this one sculpture, literally and figuratively speaking. A casual browse in the souvenir shop will confirm this from the many incarnations of plastic reproductions of this star piece, and on the cover feature of the NPM guidebook.

Meat Shape Stone
Nearby is this piece of stone that if I didn't see it in a museum, I swear it was a piece fatty pork (not the type of meat I like to eat though, but quite a feast for my eyes). Like the Jadeite Chinese cabbage above, the texture of the stone lends itself to what its final shape would be.

Walnut and Olive Pit
Most of my must-see objects are located in Hall 304. A walnut is carved into an elaborate art piece, something reminds me of a Faberge egg, except it's much smaller. The display case next to it contains a boat that was carved from a olive kernel, which is smaller than my thumb.  If you look at this photo, it's quite unbelievable that it's smaller than a thumb (what big is an olive pit?). It was elaborately carved with several windows, doors, 8 people and a table in it! The magnifying glass fail to shed too much light into this miniature boat as it has something like a x2 magnification. There's a large poster just outside the hall, which reveals a bit more of the details of this mini Tom Thumb sculpture. Tom Thumb won't be able to get into this boat. He's too big for the boat.

Miniature sculpture has a long tradition in Chinese art, especially in Guangzhou province. In Jan 2009, we visited Atta's dad in Guangzhou, he took us to Baomo Garden ("宝墨园"), built in the late Qing dynasty. This garden is located in Panyu (番禺) district of Guangzhou where her dad lives, and is very popular with locals (the Garden, not her dad's place). A young girl has a stall that offered to carve your name on a grain of rice. She did it in a jiffy 3 minutes, and then put the carved rice into a liquid capsule that supposed to keep it for many years to come. I had my full name carved on the rice grain for a fee of a grand total of 10 Yuans (about $1.3 SGD/AUD) included labour and parts. When asked, she told us she had taken 3 years of training in the "Art of the Rice" (her stall's name).


It's a tough job. Look closely at her fingers - they're full of cuts and calluses, never mind the tan (Chinese prefer fair skin).

Oh, the not so well known artisan, who crafted the famous olive pit of the boat of the famous poet Su Dongpo was in fact a Guangzhou local worked in the Qing imperial court. All the olive pits came from olive trees that were locally grown in Guangdong.

The same miniature arts are now adapted to the Chinese industrialisation to produce miniaturised electronics, soldering microchips onto circuit boards with the same nimble, deft hands to create iPhones, iPads, Canon DSLR cameras, etc. So every time you buy these consumer products, spare a thought to those (usually young female) hands - not unlike the girl who carved my name onto a grain of rice - that charge only a small sums for making such amazing electronic appliances. Most of these factories are located in the Special Economic Zones of Shenzhen, which isn't far from Guangzhou, situated somewhere between here and HK.

Concentric Ivory Balls
According to the audio guide, some ancients believed that this piece was materialised by the devil because no human is capable of such creation. The craft was made with witchcraft. It consists of 21 intricately carved spheres one inside of another, and freely rotate, all 21 concentric balls were carved from a SINGLE piece of ivory. Archaeologists have now cracked the mystery of how the Egyptian pyramid was built without resorting to explanation of anti gravity devices supplied by ETs. All you need is a very long ramp that they built alongside the pyramid. But nobody on earth has yet been able to supply a satisfactory answer on how this 'Demonic Spheres' (my nickname for it) were made. In Winston Churchill's words, "It's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma", and repeat this saying 6 more times to get the 21 layers of mind-boggling puzzles. For now, let's stick with the explanation that it's either made by demons, or ETs (not necessary the same ones who made the Egyptian pyramids).

All these silly resorts to ETs is indications that we under-estimate our ancestors' ability. Way under. They maybe technologically[1] behind us, but they made up for this with innovation, resourcefulness, and brilliance. Their superstitions also made us think that they were feeble minded. While the Roman invented things like concrete, built amazing structures, organised huge armies, etc, but still made their nation altering decision by looking into the entrails of birds. They were anything but dumb. Look at Pythagoras's Theorem, this isn't the work of the devil or ET, but our ingenious ancestors. To me, many of the ancient mathematical discoveries were as 'impossible' as the buildings of pyramids, and yet nobody say they're helped by the aliens. The building of The Great Wall of China is just as impressive, but since their buildings were recorded, no flight of the fancy were necessary - in fact allowed - to explain its creation. If they weren't recorded, you can let your imagination run wild.
Next to the Demonic Spheres is another exquisitely engraved Chinese food basket or stacked 'lunch boxes'. Although it's not as baffling as its neighbouring piece, but its mastery of the craft is sublimely stunning.

I didn't spend too much time on gawking in the painting and calligraphy galleries. I do enjoy looking at them, but I don't have the breadth and depth of knowledge to truly appreciate them (never mind the cultural refinement and sensitivity). With limited time, and even more limited supply of energy, I spent most of my time on 3F, looking at artefacts that I guess would be best described as 3D. I like 3D arts as I lack the depth in understanding the 2D painting and calligraphy (if you know what I mean). If you're in the minority who admire Chinese paintings and calligraphy, then you're in luck, as those galleries are usually much more empty.

I'm always interested in learning about the evolution of Chinese China (where it has bored the name of the country) that traces from primitive ceramic, celadon, to reach a peak of porcelain of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Unlike painting and calligraphy, ceramic objects aren't just functional, but it embodies the accomplishments in arts, science and technology. And what's more many ceramic pieces contain both paintings and calligraphy, no wonder why ceramics earn such well deserved popularity.

One impression I have left while walking out of the NPM is that there are very few materials that the ancient Chinese didn't use to make their arts from the humble bamboo, gourd, wood, to the traditional bronzes, clay, paper, to precious gems like jade and ivory, and the more exotic like walnut and olive pit.

These artefacts I highlighted are jaw-dropping, and eye-popping, but most of the collections in this museum would be able to wow you sufficiently with their command of the skills and ingenuity of the ancient Chinese artisans. Some of these skills, unfortunately, lost in time. Like the arts in creating the Demonic Spheres leaving us with many question marks floating above our head, but also leave us for more respects for the ancients.

I only spent 3/4 of a day in this museum. Not all the 70,000 items are on displayed any one time. The different artefacts are rotated regularly, although I think the must-see list I mentioned are permanent display items because of their popularity. To see them all, one may have to spend about 30 years, as I was told. Well, my return ticket is for tomorrow. So I needed to end the museum trip 3/4 of day instead of 30 years.

[1]  Are the ancients so technologically primitive? What about the Parthian battery discovered in modern day Iraq that dated circa 250BC to 250AD? The fun thing is to speculate what it was for? Powering a toy monkey? What about the technology of coating copper swords with chromium oxide to avoid rusting. These swords were found in the tomb of Qin Emperor in Xi'an (alongside the terracotta warriors) and were made circa 200 BC? Was rust-free when they were unearthed. This technology was 'discovered' or 'invented' in USA in the 1930's. Ancient Greek invented an analogue computer circa 150BC, and a vending machine circa 1BC, and various steam engines. The ancients were quite technologically advanced. I think they just didn't have a big enough population to support these technological inventions.

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