A few weeks ago, I unexpectedly connected with my Chinese roots in Taiwan. This might not be well-publicized, but Taiwan now seems to me a pretty good (and uncrowded) place to discover your Chinese roots and heritage, in case you were looking to do that. Although there is that big and now-mighty country China, which probably comes first to mind when people think about Chinese history and heritage, on my countless trips there I have found it to be too crowded, too big, and in full economic growth overdrive. Taiwan is a lot more chilled out. If you are looking to connect with your Chinese roots, go to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Photo credit: Chinaonlinemuseum.com
The Most Understated Museum in the World
I’ve never been a fan of museums, and I only ever visit when there’s art to be found. If you are like me and there is only one museum you would go to in your life, believe me, this is the real deal. No other museum has ever dazzled me as much, and nothing has ever been as effective in helping me discover my Chinese roots. I don’t know how I never heard about this until a few weeks ago, but this has got to be one of the most understated museums in the world.
In 1948, the Chiang Kai-Shek army moved almost 3,000 crates of art items from Beijing to Taiwan. Amongst those crates were some of the best representative pieces of ancient Chinese art, which included calligraphy, paintings, porcelain, ceramics, sculptures, ancient jewelry and furniture and household items. As I went through hundreds of art pieces, I felt more in touch with my Chinese roots than ever because I was able to slowly piece together a mental image of what (wealthy) life was like in dynastic China. The collection in Taiwan has got to be the most impressive collection of Chinese art and antiques, stretching from the neolithic age to the modern Qing dynasty. I heard that at any one time, less than 10% of the National Palace Museum’s collection is on display. Seeing more than 2,000 years of history at the National Palace Museum was no less impressive than visiting the Pyramids of Giza and Grand Egyptian Museum, which had 4,000 years of history.
Chinese Art Masterpieces That Will Help You Connect With Your Chinese Roots
Photo credit: Orientations Magazine
Being primarily western educated, I grew up admiring and understanding western art. In college, I had to take an art history introduction course as part of my core curriculum, but eastern art was not on the syllabus and I never explored my Chinese roots and heritage. When you go, be sure to check these out:
1) Tang Yin’s golden fans: I was impressed by the collection of exquisite paintings and poetry on at least 30 golden fans, done by Ming Dynasty’s Tang Yin, otherwise popularly known as Tang Bohu. They were mostly ink paintings of flowers and willow, accompanied by romantic poetry written with beautiful calligraphy.
2) Spring Morning In The Han Palace painting: See the painting here. This was a ~25m long scroll painting by Ming Dynasty’s Qiu Ying, depicting scenes from a typical morning in the Han imperial palace. The painting is faded but well-preserved, and depicted how the court ladies kept themselves entertained, and what the palaces used to look like. You can see the ladies putting on makeup, taking care of their children, playing old Classical Chinese instruments like the guzheng and pipa, painting (or being painted), and chatting in groups. It totally brought to life what people looked like in the past, how they dressed, and how they spent their days.
3) Yang Shoujing’s calligraphy and collection of rare handwritten books: I used to learn calligraphy in elementary school, but I didn’t bother taking it very far since I didn’t see the practicality in learning calligraphy. But when I saw the perfect calligraphy strokes of Yang Shoujing, which you can see here, I was impressed by how beautiful the characters were. Yang Shoujing was a superb calligrapher and collector of books. Nobody writes like that anymore – it’s a lost art! Together with appreciating the calligraphy of the other rare books, I felt super in touch with my Chinese roots.
4) Dynastic jewelry: In my generation, most people think about Chinese jewelry as rather unfashionable, so no one pays attention really. But looking at the intricate hairpins worn by court ladies, carved jade and emperors’ crowns, made me think that the Chinese are actually a creative lot too who know how to create beautiful craft.
5) Enamel-painted porcelain from the Yongzheng era: Art really flowered under Emperor Yongzheng. who had a deep appreciation for the fine arts. There were countless porcelain pieces, big and small, that are guaranteed to impress. The one that particularly left a deep impression on me was a vase with a hundred deers painted in five colors, each one different and felt just like they were moving within the painting.
The National Palace Museum helped me to connect with my Chinese roots because it provided a vivid imagination of what life was like in China in the past, and how my ancestors (at least the rich ones) used to live and look like. I think it gave me a sense of heritage and helped me to feel inspired by Chinese history, arts and culture. My grandfather immigrated from southeastern China to Singapore, and we used to have a couple of Chinese watercolor paintings and these old uncomfortable classical Chinese furniture that looked like this:
Photo credit: kaleidoscope.cultural-china.com
I didn’t like them when I was young, and I never thought much of Chinese art. But now, have a newfound appreciation for what the Chinese have created, and I’ve learned to appreciate my Chinese roots.
Have you ever visited a place where you were completely blown away by what your ancestors created and achieved? Leave a comment!