Taipei surprised me with how artsy it was. From the store fronts of ambitious clothing designers, to the tender postcards crafted by clever paper artists (look, you can break this postcard down and make your own paper model of Taipei 101!), I was constantly inundated with artistic inspiration, the energy of which I didn’t know what to do with. It sucks to be a budding artist and to recognize that your skills don’t yet match your taste levels.
The crown jewel of Taiwan’s art scene (despite having nothing to do with the cotton candy aesthetic) is clearly the National Palace Museum. This is one heck of a coup for the Taiwanese government who, upon realizing they were about to lose the Chinese mainland to the communists, made off with the lion’s share of imperial China’s greatest art works. I’ve been to Beijing, I’ve seen the displays in the Forbidden City, there is no question of who has the best stuff. And ultimately I think this is a good thing, because the Taiwanese have done a masterful job of displaying the goods.
Doubtless it sticks in the craw of the Chinese government that droves of Chinese tourists visit democratic, prosperous Taiwan explicitly to take a gander at their country’s glorious past. And my God there were tons of tourists when I visited. There must have been fifteen tours going on at the same time (some were Korean and Japanese, though obviously not together), all of them loud and pushy and annoying. More than once I found myself squished up against a glass display as a small army tried to look at the same tiny necklace together. This did tamp down on my spirits somewhat and with the sheer monotony of some of the works (how many glazed bowls did the Ming produce??) my visit to the National Palace Museum was a bit of an arduous experience.
Nevertheless, there were quite a few pieces that stood out. My favorite pieces were the peach pit carvings, which I didn’t even know were a THING. The museum had helpfully put magnifying glasses in front of each peach pit, positioned carefully so you could still see the sheer smallness of the pit AND the density of detail the genius artist had carved into it. We’re talking tree branches, birds, maybe a boat with functional windows and faces on all its passengers. (Okay, I know it’s not a peach pit…) Who would’ve ever thought of making high art out of peach pits?? As it turns out, peaches symbolize longevity in Chinese culture, thus making them ideal birthday gifts.
(Actually, a lot of Chinese art deals in symbolism, which to us non-Mandarin speakers must seem like random insanity… but becomes obvious when you realize the wealth of homophones in the Chinese language. This is how bats came to mean prosperity. Bats, guys.)
The other piece of art worth noting is The Cabbage with Two Insects. The Cabbage began life as a highly flawed piece of jadeite, unfit for most of the jewelry the other little pieces of jadeite got to grow up to be. But then, a spark of creativity utilized all the jade’s flaws in the veins and leaves of The Cabbage, making a piece of art far more celebrated than all the other jade pieces put together. It’s a nifty story that one might even apply to humans: that what we think are our greatest flaws can transform into our greatest strengths, the sources of our best contribution to offer life.
Not bad takeaways from three hours at a stuffy museum.
[This post was originally published on May 27, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]