(First of two parts)
Most Filipinos associate Taiwan with sprawling skyscrapers (such as Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building until 2010), industrial parks, mammoth factories, electronic goods and computers. That’s quite understandable given Taiwan’s reputation as an economic powerhouse in Asia – and a prime destination for our country’s migrant workers.
However, once you’ve set foot in this 36 square kilometer island (about the size of the Netherlands), you realize that Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China) is much more than what many of our countrymen perceive it to be.
Its thriving and vibrant cultural scene, efficient transportation system, cheap eats, diverse shopping options and a host of other attractions make this tiny island a veritable tourist paradise for globe-trotting Filipinos.
That’s what I discovered during a recent cultural and heritage tour of Taiwan with a group of international journalists from Canada, the United Kingdom, Latin America, the Caribbean and other Asian countries.
One of our first stops is the world-renowned National Palace Museum in Taipei, which is a must-see for any visitor to Taiwan.
Acclaimed as one of the world’s most prestigious museums, Taiwan’s national museum is home to some 700,000 artifacts that are internationally acknowledged as a showcase of China’s rich cultural legacy. Its vast collection represents every stage in the development of Chinese culture from the Neolithic Age (or the New Stone Age around 5,000 BC) up to the modern times.
Not known to many of its visitors, the museum itself has a colorful history. Originally located in Beijing, the museum was officially inaugurated in 1925 following the ouster of the last Qing emperor Puyi (more famously depicted in the Hollywood movie, “The Last Emperor”). With its opening, the Forbidden City’s imperial collections that had been locked away for centuries were put on display for public viewing.
We were told that when the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1933, the museum’s curators packed the collection into some 13,000 crates as the Japanese imperial army neared Beijing. The Chinese army under Chiang Kai Shek moved them first to Shanghai, then to Nanjing. Later, the collection was split among various provinces in the hinterland of China, an odyssey that no other museum in the world had ever embarked upon.
After Japan was defeated, China descended into civil war. Beaten back by the communist People’s Liberation Army into southern China, the Republic of China government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, bringing with it about 3,000 crates-worth of the most valuable imperial artifacts—the cream of the imperial collections. It is these objets d’art that form the core of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.
Among them are two of the museum’s most important and famous pieces. One is the “Jadeite Cabbage with Insects,” which was carved from fine jade to resemble a Chinese cabbage with two pale green bugs resting on its leaves. The other is the “Meat-Shaped Stone” that was carved out of banded jasper and then stained to make it look like a slab of pork cooked in soy sauce.
The sculptures are one-of-a-kind in the Chinese art world. Not even the national museum in Beijing has gemstone carvings as exquisite and remarkable as the cabbage and meat look-alike in Taiwan. Perhaps that is why not a few art connoisseurs say that if you want to see the art and treasures of ancient China, you should head to National Palace Museum in Taipei instead.
Even Chinese mainland visitors to Taiwan seem to agree. Some 90 percent of the 4.5 million tourists from mainland China reportedly made their way to the museum last year. That explains why our press group had to jostle our way inside some of the museum’s galleries containing celebrated Chinese bronze, pottery and stone works. Were it not for our special pass and tailor-made tour, we probably would not have seen these famous artworks due to the sheer number of visitors.
Another museum of note in our itinerary is the National Museum of History, which houses approximately 60,000 relics ranging from pre-historic time to the Shang, Zhou, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming and (the last) Qing dynasties. The museum is highly regarded for its tri-color glazed pottery figures and porcelain.
Tri-color pottery is a special kind of pottery that evolved some 1,300 years ago during the Tang Dynasty. It is so named because of the primary use of three colors—white, brown or yellow and green.
At a time when the use of glaze was unheard of in other parts of the world, Tang potters were already creating intricately molded and colored ceramic figurines and wares. The ancient technique required repeated glazing, baking and re-glazing, which gave these pottery masterpieces their deep, bright color that survived the ravages of time.
With over 70 museums throughout the island, Taiwan is a museum-goer’s Nirvana.
Taiwan’s cultural attractions, however, aren’t limited to museums alone. (To be continued on Tuesday May 13.)