November 2, 2018
By some twist of historical fate, the repository of thousands of artifacts and relics from the world’s longest continuous civilization – 5,000 years as the Chinese proudly claimed – could be found in Taiwan, not in China. For this reason, I received marching orders from my sister via Facebook to visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei. “All the cultural heritage of China under one roof,” was her pitch, echoed by my Taiwanese friend, Sam, who offered to take me there.
Coming by train from a neighboring city, Sam met me at Shilin Metro Station, close to my digs, then we caught a bus to the museum about 20 minutes away. At street level, the main exhibition hall of Gugong (the museum in Chinese) with a façade of distinctly traditional architecture was sprawling. I was thankful I wolfed down a huge serving of waffle for brunch. That much sugar was required to power this visit.
The collection was massive. Save for the mainstays, it was possible not to see the same display each visit as the items were rotated every few months. Thousands more were hidden in storage, some would most likely never see the light of day.
We commenced the tour at the museum’s most famous art work: a sculpture of braised pork belly. My sister could only be pulling my leg; the mere thought sounded ridiculous. But lo and behold, all two inches of the Meat-Shaped Stone lay on display. Upon closer inspection, the details jumped at me. This piece of jasper showed all the tenderness, variegation, and delicacy of pork. The likeness was astonishing: the layers of fat and meat, the sheen of oil, even the pores on the skin were recreated in stone.
For what purpose this centuries-old sculpture was made, I never knew. All it conveyed was how the Chinese elevated food to an art form. Alas, the museum’s other famous food sculpture, the Jadeite Cabbage, was fielded elsewhere that day.
Among all precious stones, jade had been the Chinese choice for centuries. Its elegance – smoothness and brightness – embodied everything the Chinese valued: wealth and beauty, the natural and the supernatural. An entire hall was dedicated to this stone alone. That said, the ceramics and bronze collections were no less impressive.
Fatigue caught up with us at the hall of paintings. We took a break and sat across from a looming Song Dynasty landscape painting. Our eyes wandered before our feet did. They traced the mountains, foliage, and river rendered so exquisitely in the painting, but somehow my eyes trained on the vignette they dwarfed around them: a boy playing with chickens, perhaps in his family’s backyard. It soon became a point for meditation on life – then and now, theirs and ours. Sam and I sat transfixed for much longer than we had planned.
Before night fell, we moved from China’s ancient past to Taiwan’s progressive present with my girl squad, who had chosen market over museum, commerce over culture. From Shilin, we took the metro to Taipei 101, which held the record as the world’s tallest building until 2010. With the late hour to blame, we skipped the observation deck and never made it past the mall at the base. Instead, I tried out the latest Phantom speakers by dancing in the showroom and the girls spent time and money at Zara.
The least we could do was to look up at the postmodern form of Taipei 101 from the sidewalk. The slender and serrated tower was piercing the sky, its top well within cloud cover. It could have felt at home in Shanghai’s skyline.
I had not memorized the order of Chinese dynasties. A timeline displayed at the National Palace Museum made it easy to follow the eras. Sam took me a bit further. We ended our tour at postmodern Taiwan. We could have meditated on the scope of Chinese art and aspirations and ambition we had seen that day – from past to postmodern, from tiny sculpture to towering skyscraper.