Taipei's National Palace Museum: Inside the 'Le Louvre' of Taiwan

As we wait in the vast foyer of Taiwan's National Palace Museum, our guide Shirley apologies.

"What did you say?" we shout. Nobody can hear above the din.

"Sorry about the noise," says Shirley when she can finally be heard.

A Taiwanese woman who previously lived for three years on Sydney's north shore, Shirley is reluctant to say too much until we plug in our headsets and tune them so we can hear her above the crowds engulfing us.

"It's the Chinese," she says to explain the noise.

Shirley doesn't mean Taiwanese-born Chinese like her. She means visitors from mainland China.

It is often said the United States and Australia are two countries divided by the same language. The same could be said about the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), more commonly known as Taiwan: the two Chinas that have been living separate lives for more than a century.

They look similar, they sound very similar, but after years of American and Japanese influence, the Taiwanese often comment on their noisy relatives across the straits.

Until the mid 1940s, the Taiwanese lived under Japanese rule. Under the Kuomintang they were cut off again from mainland China to the late 1980s.

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Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, fled China for Taiwan in 1949 – with 1.2 million following from Mainland China in his wake. He established a new republic of China, which never ceded its sovereignty over mainland China. At the same time, the mainland has never ceded its sovereignty over Taiwan.

Since restrictions preventing mainland Chinese from visiting Taiwan were removed eight years ago, the numbers of visitors have rocketed. In 2014, it attracted 4 million visitors from mainland China and about 1.5 million visitors from Hong Kong.

Nearly all descend in bus loads – the museum attracts 14,000 visitors a day, and most are from the mainland – to visit the family jewels: more than 600,000 precious objects spanning 2000 years that were originally part of the Forbidden City's Palace Museum in Beijing.

"I came here eight years ago, and I was alone," said Joop, a Dutch anthropologist and writer with our group. He recalls visiting the vast museum in Taipei's Shilin District and wandering by himself through empty galleries filled with one of the most valuable and largest collections of Chinese art and culture in the world.

Visitors to France make the obligatory visit to the Le Louvre to glimpse Mona Lisa's smile. In Scotland, the crowd pleaser is the skating minister.

In Taipei's national museum, the most popular item is the Jadeite Cabbage with Insects – a small carving of a Chinese cabbage which is about the same size as a paperback book. The carving was done by an anonymous artist who turned the stone's flaws into something precious, and hid two insects – a katydid and a locust – in its green leaves. Some believe it was a fertility blessing, because the insects represent children.

It was originally part of the collection from Beijing's Palace Museum, whose 1.8 million pieces attract 15 million visitors, making it the world's most popular museum.

Yet few visitors know how the cabbage and other precious objects were taken on an eight-year journey over thousands of kilometres from China to Taiwan to keep them safe, writes South China Morning Post reporter and author Mark O'Neill in a new book (The Miraculous History of China's Two Palace Museums).

After the Japanese army threatened northern China in the 1930s the directors of the Palace Museum in Beijing decided to pack up nearly 20,000 crates "to keep them out of the clutches of the foreign aggressors".

To avoid Japanese detection the crates had to be transported by train south in the middle of the night, with a military escort.

"A cargo carrying treasures spanning 2000 years happens only once in many lifetimes," a museum official Wu Ying told O'Neill.

When the plan to move the pieces was uncovered, the pieces were detoured. They were re-routed from Nanjin to Shanghai, where they were stored in a Catholic Church. When the Japanese invasion intensified, the pieces were moved again, this time stored in temples, caves, tunnels, private homes and other safe places.

For the next eight years, staff never left the pieces unattended. "If the pieces were stored in a school, they slept in the school," the director of the National Palace Museum, Fung Ming-chu, said. If they were stored in a cave, staff lived nearby.

When the war finished, the then president Chiang Kai-Shek took about 20 per cent of the pieces, including the Jadeite Cabbage and the nearly as popular meat-shaped stone, with him into exile in Taiwan.

The others were returned to Shanghai.

Not one piece was lost on the long journey, writes O'Neill.

Chiang Kai-Shek initially believed he would return home to China so the pieces were again stored out of sight for many years. Finally, the ageing leader realised that Taiwan was going to be home permanently so he built the grand museum to house these objects.

Once inside the museum, we waited with a sea of people to see the cabbage in the jade gallery, called "Nature and Human in Unison: Smart Carvings of Jade and Beautiful Stone".

As we filed past, a guard hovered nearby.

Next stop was the meat-shaped stone, a piece of jasper that is strikingly like the pork marinated in soy sauce that is popular in many restaurants.

If you prefer to eat your art, the museum's restaurant Silks Palace offers an Imperial Treasures Feast that includes an edible version of the meat-shape stone: "Our chefs select the best pig knuckle, stew it in a secret recipe sauce made with sugar, scallions, soy sauce and other things … and using their outstanding carving skills, carve out a shape that is exactly like the treasure."

It also includes a reproduction of the cabbage with prawns prepared to look like insects (waiter, there really is a fly in my soup!), and classic desserts in a curio box that resembles those used by emperors for their most precious objects.

It's worth escaping the crowds to explore the museum because it contains one of the most important collections of Chinese art in the world, says the Art Gallery of NSW assistant curator of Asian art, Natalie Seiz.

While most tourists go to see the jade cabbage and the meat-shaped stone, "admittedly impressive feats of the artisans who carved them," the collection had significant holdings in all areas of Chinese art – bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, painting and calligraphy from periods throughout Chinese history right up to the Qing dynasty.

It also attracts researchers and art historians because it contains official documents and manuscripts, an important repository for the research of Chinese art and history, said Seiz.

One room contained some of the last surviving pieces of extremely rare celadon – ruyao ware made for the Imperial family (960-1127).

The glaze is said to be "the colour of the sky after rain stops and the clouds break."

Only 70 pieces of this celadon survive, and 21 pieces of them are in the Palace Museum collection.

It is so precious that the Rockefeller Foundation offered to fund the construction of the museum in exchange for one piece, said our guide Shirley. The museum refused.

Another popular wing contains household items from the Ming dynasty, including a bowl made from a human skull which was used by a high-ranking monk.

A hat stand with 24 layers of carving was made from an elephant's tusk.

"It's only function was for the Emperor's hat," said our guide.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.welcome2taiwan.net

www.npm.gov.tw

GETTING THERE

Taiwan's China Airlines flies daily between Sydney and Taipei with return economy fares from $1300; see www.china-airlines.com

STAYING THERE

The Howard Plaza hotel is well-located for many Taipei sights, although 14km from the National Palace Museum. Rooms from $170; see www.taipei.howard-hotels.com 

EATING THERE

It is never too early or late to eat in Taiwan. Start the day with some croissant-like pastries from street stalls, only about $1 each. There are dumplings everywhere, try Din Tai Fung, the Michelin-starred Taiwanese chain that has spread to Australia and beyond. Many Taiwanese don't go there for the dumplings but for the fried rice, which they say is the best in the world. Move on to the Shilin night markets for food adventures such as goose tongues and chicken testicles, reportedly great for a healthy pregnancy. See www.englishintaiwan.com.

Julie Power was the guest of the Republic of China (Taiwan) Department of Foreign Affairs as part of a cultural program.

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