A Traveling Circus

The National Palace Museum is the pride of Taiwan. Travel guides hail it as the best and the largest of its kind. A must-see collection of Chinese art and artifacts. Taiwan is our first destination on the journey that took my husband and me around the world in the 7 months before Covid-19 struck.

We are art lovers and of Asian art in particular. Mom will be joining us on this leg of the trip and she’s a fan of all things that glorify Chinese culture. So it’s a no brainer to include the National Palace Museum on our itinerary.

The last emperor

The emperors of China were art lovers, too. Starting in the Song dynasty, they systematically collected the finest works of the age in order to decorate their home, also known as the Forbidden Palace. As the name implies, mere mortals were not allowed to gaze upon these works until the last emperor, Puyi, was deposed. 10 October 1925 marks the founding of the Republic of China and the conversion of the Forbidden Palace into the National Palace Museum.

National Palace Museum treasure fleeing Japanese forces in the 1930s. Image source: Wikimedia

It wasn’t the greatest time to open a museum. The republic was weak. Warlords controlled large swaths of the country. With the Mukden Incident in 1931, Japan began its steady incursion into China that would ultimately culminate in the 2nd Sino-Japanese War.

From 1933 to 1938, the National Palace Museum moved from Beijing to Shanghai and from there dispersed into the deep north and far west. The collection traveled by train and truck and riverboat. Astonishingly, it survived the journey intact and wartime, too.

An accident of history

As soon as the aggressions between China and Japan ended, the collection of the National Palace Museum returned to Beijing. Meanwhile, the civil war between the ruling Nationalists and the insurgent Communists resumed. We all know how that war ended.

How then did an art collection travel from Beijing to Taiwan? My Lonely Planet guide jocularly explains this as a pure accident of history. Not exactly.

In the last months of 1948, it became increasingly obvious to the Nationalists that Beijing would soon fall to the Communists. The Nationalists shipped thousands of crates full of rare books, Qing dynasty archives and art treasures to Taiwan. There, 300,000 soldiers and 26 gunboats stood ready to defend the cache. It was

a clever propagandistic move to make the Nationalists seem like the preservers of the Chinese national heritage.

Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China, 3rd Edition, p456 (W.W. Norton 2013)

The website of the National Palace Museum in Taiwan offers a more bland precis.

The history between the Kuomintang and the communist party contributed to the relocation of National Palace Museum (NPM) artifacts to Taiwan and the artifacts subsequently becoming a crucial part of Taiwan’s culture.

National Palace Museum, Tradition and Continuity, “History of the National Palace Museum” [accessed 24 Apr 2021]

Another Chinese restaurant

National Palace Museum Taipei
National Palace Museum in the 1970s. Image source: Wikimedia

Taiwan’s National Palace Museum opened in 1957 in a northern suburb of Taipei. In 1969, when I was 10 years old, our family visited Taiwan. I’m pretty sure we went to the National Palace Museum though I can find no record of the event in the journal my father demanded I keep during this trip. At 10 years old, my life consisted of Chinese lessons, food and napping. Perhaps this explains the vague recollection I have of mistaking the National Palace Museum for yet another Chinese restaurant.

Meanwhile, the curators of the National Palace Museum were making inroads into the international art scene. They organized traveling exhibits, exchanged collections and entertained various dignitaries of the art world. Given the chilly state of relations between China and Taiwan, there was little interaction between the two Chinas. In 2009, a delegation of curators from the National Palace Museum and the Beijing Palace Museum traveled back and forth aiming to pave the way for cross-strait cultural exchanges.

In 2012, I returned to Taiwan, this time with my mother and my husband. I think we went to the National Palace Museum, which I remember as being incredibly crowded. It was impossible for me to see its most famous possessions such as the Jadeite Cabbage or the Meat-shaped Stone. Once again, my journal offers no proof. Instead, I read entries about the food on offer at the Shilin Night Market. Do you sense the food theme?

A country cousin

In 2016, the National Palace Museum changed its name. The one in Taipei became the Northern Branch once a new Southern Branch opened in tiny Taibao in Chiayi County. The purpose of the latter is naked: to achieve cultural equity between north and south.

Residents of central and southern Taiwan get a chance to see the treasures of the National Palace Museum. The hope is that such a cultural draw will also lead to more tourists and an economic boom. During our visit in 2019, the Southern Branch was as bereft of visitors as the Forbidden Palace culled of its cultural artifacts. It did, however, offer an unobstructed view of the Meat-shaped Stone, on loan from the Northern Branch.

My 2019 journal tells me that the Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum was not a hit with Mom. She liked the jade collection but little else. The food in Chiayi County, on the other hand, was better than in Taipei.

National Palace Museum Southern Branch
Boddhisatva in the National Palace Museum Southern Branch. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Vassal states

To differentiate itself from the famous northern collection, the Southern Branch takes a broader view of what it calls Chinese art.

Various civilizations in the East Asian cultural sphere, including the Chinese civilization, have communicated and interacted with each other in the vast Pan-Asian region since ancient times through the Silk Roads both on the land and the sea. … [S]ome artifacts initially classified as Chinese origins also bear other Asian elements while some relics believed to be originated from Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia reveal traces of Chinese connectivity.

National Palace Museum Southern Branch, “Vision” [accessed 24 Apr 2021]

In other words, the Southern Branch collection features tributes given to China by its vassal states. It was a practice that the Chinese emperors enjoyed and encouraged for much of Chinese history, convinced as they were of China’s superiority.

China knew, of course, of different societies around its periphery in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma; but in the Chinese perception, China was considered the center of the world, the “Middle Kingdom,” and other societies were assessed as gradations from it. As the Chinese saw it, a host of lesser states imbibed Chinese culture and paid tribute to China’s greatness constituted the natural order of the universe.

Henry Kissinger, On China, p10 (Allen Lane 2011)

Consciously or not, the National Palace Museum forms a microcosm of Chinese history. From the long ago days, when China could rightfully call itself the Middle Kingdom, through the long years of decline, war and revolution. I see now what the Southern Branch offered us: an introduction to the former vassal states we would soon visit on our round-the-world adventures: Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea and Japan.