Saturday, March 10, 2018

Southern Branch of the National Palace Museum - Asian Art and Culture Museum

When I first visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei 20 years ago, I remember that there was a saying that the museum had so many treasures that it would take 10 years to show them all if they would rotate their exhibitions every month! With so many artworks on hand, it really made sense to open a second branch of this museum in Taibo, Chiayi county. But before I continue with a description of my visit of this new museum, let me briefly remind my readers where all these treasures come from: the collection of Qing dynasty emperors! In 1925, 14 after the revolution overthrew the last emperor, his palace in the Forbidden city was turned into the National Palace Museum. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nationalist government moved this collection inland, far away from the Japanese and (later) the Communist armies. In early 1949, the most prized items of this collection arrived on Taiwan as Chang Kai Shek lost the Mainland to the Communists.
Celadon cup and stand, 12th century, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Korea
The National Palace Museum in Taipei was modeled on the original Palace in Beijing as a link between Taiwan and China's past. The new museum in Taibo has a modern design that looks like a big boat (next to water) that is linking past and present. And while the National Palace Museum never says it's Chinese, the name of this branch is Asian Art and Culture Museum (my emphasis). This is the explanation for the Korean tea ware you see here. (Most are loans from the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka, Japan). At a time when Taiwan's identity is in flux, with nationalist and independent parties governing in turns, this broader Asian perspective does make sense politically.
Celadon bowl, first half of 12th century, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Korea
For ceramics, it's also interesting to see how China's Tang dynasty has influenced the shape of the above bowl or how Sung dynasty Ru ware (1086-1125) has inspired the stand below (see pages 12-13 in my British Museum visit pdf). And you can find similar stands in Japan's matcha tea ceremony. It would be very interesting to put similar items from different Asian countries next to each other to show the common heritage and the differences that arose in each place. So far, however, most of the ceramic exhibitions don't mix.
Celadon flower shaped stand, first half of 12th century, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Korea
There's this room with Korean wares. It also includes beautiful ewers that are decorated very differently compared to China's.
Celadon gourd shape ewer with inlaid chrysanthemum design, 12th century, Goryeo dynasty (918-1392), Korea
And then there is a room with Japanese porcelain. The influence of Jingdezhen is obvious for a trained eye, but it may escape to most visitors.
Porcelain cup and saucer with dragon design in overglaze polychrome enamels, Edo period, 1690-1730s, Arita ware, Japan 
On the positive side, I liked the tall rooms and good artificial lighting in this modern museum. It also doesn't try to show too many art works. There must still be plenty of material to open another branch or two!
Porcelain saucer with design of a pavilion, human figures in overglaze polychrome enamels, Edo period, 1700-1730s, Arita ware, Japan 
It's easy and relatively fast to visit. So, it is a good fit for Chinese tourists on a tour before their 2 hours bus trip to Alishan. This museum acts a magnet for the small city of Chiayi and actively promotes Taiwan's tea industry.
Porcelain teapot in overglaze polychrome enamels, Edo period, 1700-1730s, Arita ware, Japan
One of the last and most interesting room is the 'The Far-Reaching Fragrance of Tea' exhibition. This is where the museum comes closest to its 'Asian culture' purpose by showing tea ware from different countries in the same room. However, that's also where the imbalance in quality between the original Palace Museum collection and wares from other sources is most apparent. Chinese emperors clearly had access to the best wares! For instance, see this stunning Tang dynasty ewer: 
Ewer in green glaze, Changsha ware, Tang dynasty (618-907)
Its straight handle on the side was a popular feature during the Tang dyansty (618-907). This antique ceramic is very important, because it shows what has inspired the shape of Japanese kyusu teapots.

Next comes a very good example of how putting bringing wares from different countries together results in new understanding. What do you see?
Set of Sencha ustensils, Meiji period, 19th century
This set looks very much like a Chinese Chaozhou gongfu cha set, but it's a Sencha set from the 19th century! We can see that several items were common to the tea culture of both countries. The porcelain qinghua cups are from Jingezhen (or Arita), the pewter tea caddy came from Chaoshan, the teapot has a flat lid (Ju Lun Zhu style) and comes from Yixing.
Woven bamboo tea basket
And this beautiful woven bamboo tea basket was made in China. It was an important item, since it helps the brewer store and move his tea ware. And below we can see the white clay kettle with side handle on a brazier that was used for the Sencha ceremony in Japan. The link with the green Tang ewer is obvious.
White brazier and while clay boiling pot 
This set below is a Gongfucha tea set. (It comes from a private collection, not from the original palace museum). Placed next to the Sencha set, it shows how tea culture was already pan Asian in the 19th century/20th century and how most gongfucha items were also used, copied or reinterpreted in Japan.
Gongfu cha set, late Qing/early Republic
(Note: the students at the Tea Institute at Penn State may have a look at the Chaozhou gongfu cha set in their collection and see how well it compares to this set!...)
The older wares from the original palace collection remain the real stars of the museum. I still recommend its visit and the purchase of this book that has been published with the creation of this exhibition:

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