Mysteries of Taipei


When I was in Beijing’s Forbidden City I was told “There are no more ancient artifacts here, they were all stolen by Chiang Kai-Shek. You’ll see them in Taipei.”

So, when we got to Taiwan, I hopped into a taxi with a couple of my fellow passengers


and headed to the National Palace Museum. It’s now home to about 700,000 of said treasures, some individual pieces of which are said to be worth 30 million dollars each.


By accident we arrived just in time for one of two daily English-speaking tours, and if you go there, I suggest that you do too. There probably weren’t actually 700,000 people viewing the ancient beauties, but it sure felt like it. Everything is behind glass, and the line-ups to take pictures were sometimes seven of eight deep around each one.


The museum holds what was formerly the Imperial collection, housed in the Forbidden City, which is now utterly bereft of treasure except for its architecture.


As our guide pointed out several times, without actually addressing the question of whether the artifacts were stolen or not, it was the Imperial collection, and Chiang Kai-Shek was the head of the government when he, and a good part of the collection, re-located to Taiwan in the face of Mao Tse Tung’s onrushing army.


So the treasures were either evacuated and rescued, or stolen, depending entirely on your perspective.


This place is the absolute nexus  of the notion that history belongs to the story teller. My guide in Beijing and our taxi driver in Taipei were both 100% that their version of the events were correct, diametrically opposed though they were. Stolen or rescued, that is the question that history will not be able to answer.


And since we’re on the eve of our own momentous election, I can’t help but reflect on how history will remember us.


Of course, we leave behind our digital records. But as we have seen, even such sources of knowledge are ephemeral, can be erased, can be altered. These objects speak for themselves, wherever they may be, whatever they’re saying.


Our museum guide did say that Taiwan and China are having discussions about whether to repatriate some of the collection,


but in view of the “one China” policy, which holds that Taiwan is not an independent country but a part of China, it’s hard to imagine how those discussions will turn out.


On the way to a hasty lunch in a basement food court, where I had an excellent bibimbap to make up for the fact that we aren’t going to Korea, we saw this upsetting sign. I couldn’t get anyone there to give a clear answer to my questions about what it was doing there, but my understanding is that it’s a longstanding protest in front of the German embassy, complaining about money people lost after Germany refused to honor bonds issued back in the 1920s. Longstanding disputes seem to be a specialty in the region.


And then, we went to a temple that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.


This is the Sung Shan Tzu Yu temple, a riot of color built in the 1750s. If I understood correctly the religion practiced there is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.


It was impressively gaudy, but filled with people seriously praying, in what appeared to be a random fashion, since no organized service or ritual was apparent.


Incense burned everywhere, and was sold at little stalls that lined the interior of the temple.


This fire was burning, and at another little stall people could buy joss paper, a beautiful red and gold confection,


to cast into the fire representing a monetary offering to the deities.


Or you could buy flower offerings and lay them on tables scattered throughout the temple, where various plates of food also sat.


I would have liked to hear these giant bells and the drum, but we had to content ourselves with trying to understand what we were experiencing with only our eyes. And you have to admit, the entire place is a feast for the eyes.





I wish we’d had a real guide, instead of a taxi driver with limited English, to help us figure things out. But all in all it was a day filled with beauty and mystery. And that was Taipei.

Onward to Hong Kong.


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3 Comments on “Mysteries of Taipei”

  1. Fabienne GREGOIRE Says:

    What an incredible trip you are doing ! It must be so interesting. And it is so nice of you to take time to share it with us.

  2. Rocky Says:

    I obviously. am biased, but I’m more on the preserved side of the story for the collection at the National Museum. Given what happened during the Cultural Revolution and the near Taliban levels of destruction of knowledge, art, and cultural artefacts plus the looting during the Communist Revolution as Mao had to make deals with warlords I would bet at least half the collection would be gone. Whether destroyed, looted, or ending up in private hands. Some of that jade is just insane and the porcelain is out of this world. At least CKS and the KMT could claim they were the legitimate government and planned on returning to mainland China eventually.

  3. I once had an exchange student from Tainan, in the south of Taiwan. I made the mistake of referring to her as Chinese. She corrected me (ever so politely) that she was Taiwanese. Funny story about our language differences. She saw my Weber in the yard and asked what it was. I explained that you start the fire and cook on the grates. She asked if it had a name. I said, “Yes. We call it a grill. What do you call it in Taiwanese?” She said, enunciating carefully, “We call it bar-be-cue.”

    One evening, she wanted to cook an authentic Taiwanese meal. So we went off to the supermarket for supplies. At one point, I saw her looking very frustrated as she walked up and down the aisles, inspecting all the shelves. “What are you looking for?” I asked. She sighed deeply and said, “Where do you keep the thousand-year-old eggs?”

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