The district of Shilin (士林; shìlín), north of the Keelung River, is noted principally for being the home of Taipei’s biggest night market and the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院; guólì gùgōng bówùyuàn), one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese art and historical artefacts. It’s obviously one of the city’s highlights and needs several hours to do it justice, though there are a couple of other sights near Shilin MRT Station to keep you occupied for a day or so.

The museum pulls in over two million visitors a year with its unparalleled collection of Chinese art, a priceless treasure trove going back five thousand years, and also owns hundreds of documents, pieces of furniture, rare books and official decrees issued by the Imperial Chinese government, as well as masses of everyday items that provide a fascinating insight into life at court. Very little of this has to do with Taiwan of course – the contents are a legacy of Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat from China in 1949, when the former Imperial art collection was shipped, crate by crate, across the Taiwan Straits. While the Forbidden City in Beijing (also known as the Palace Museum) has more items, the finest pieces ended up in Taipei, becoming a contentious and often heated political issue between the two countries. Note that parts of the museum can be utterly swamped by tour groups throughout the day; your best chance of avoiding the crowds is late on Saturday evenings.

A brief history

While the museum continues to expand (mostly from donations), at its core remains the priceless collection of art and artefacts once owned by the Chinese emperors. The Imperial collection was formally established in the reign of the first Song dynasty emperor, Taizu (960–975), who seized the artwork owned by rulers he had defeated in battle; his brother and successor, Taizong (976–997), expanded the hoard considerably, commissioning new pieces and collecting ceramics, artwork and statuary from all over China. This very private collection ended up in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and it wasn’t until the last emperor Pu Yi was forced to leave in 1924 that it was opened to the public: it became the National Palace Museum one year later. After the Japanese invaded Manchuria, its precious contents were carted around the country by the Nationalist government, on and off, for almost sixteen years, but by 1949 defeat at the hands of the Communists looked certain. During one, tense night in February of that year, most of the collection was packed into crates and shipped from Nanjing to Taiwan, just weeks before the city fell. It’s worth noting, however, that although the most valuable pieces were spirited across the Taiwan Strait, much was left behind. The retreat was meant to be temporary, and it took another fifteen years before the authorities, resigned to the status quo, decided to unpack the boxes and build a museum in 1965.

China, where many see the removal of the collection as looting, would love to see it returned to the mainland. There’s little chance of that happening any time soon: most Taiwanese point to the destruction of artwork during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and claim that they have worked hard to protect important treasures that might otherwise have been lost. Meanwhile, as Taiwan gradually sees itself as part of a wider East Asian community, a new branch of the museum, opened near Chiayi in 2012, centres on Asian art, and emphasizes the foreign traditions that have influenced Chinese culture.

The collection

The museum’s collection of over 654,500 pieces is still too large for everything to be displayed at the same time, but thanks to the completion of a major renovation project in 2006, more can be exhibited than ever before. The museum is arranged thematically, but galleries tend to be grouped in chronological order: start on the third floor and work down. The daily tours in English (free) at 10am and 3pm offer a more digestible introduction to the main exhibits, while the Sanxitang Tea Room on the fourth floor is the best place to take a break.

Early China: the third floor

The third floor charts the beginnings of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic period, through to the end of the Han dynasty in 220 AD. The museum’s remarkable ensemble of Neolithic artefacts (gallery 303) primarily comprises early pottery and exquisite jade pieces – at this time jade was believed to be a medium for spirits, and as such was given special reverence.

The real highlights, however, are the collection of stunning bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–221 BC; gallery 305), principally ritual vessels owned by the wealthy. Typical pieces include the cauldron-like dǐng, and sets of cast bronze bells (zhōng), which had a ceremonial function. The most celebrated exhibit is the San P’an Basin dating from the late Western Zhou dynasty (700–900 BC), a ritual water vessel with an invaluable 350-character inscription inside. Another illustrious piece, the Maogong Ding (máogōng dǐng), named after the Duke of Mao and engraved with five hundred characters from the Zhou Dynasty, has its own special gallery to the side (301). The innovative, multimedia Mystery of Bronzes exhibition (gallery 300) is an enlightening introduction to the relatively advanced technologies of the era.

The Qin and Han dynasties (221 BC–220 AD; gallery 307) were the last to use ritual jades and bronzes, represented by the highly ornate zūn, or wine vessel. The gallery also contains some rare glazed ware, used by the rich, and “grey pottery”, often used by commoners to store burial goods.

The third floor also contains temporary exhibit galleries (304 and 306) as well as the “Dazzling Gems of the Collection” gallery (308), which features a selection of the museum’s most famous pieces: you’ll probably have to wait to get in. The biggest crowd-pleaser of all has its own room (302), the exceptional Jadeite Cabbage with Insects, a delicate Qing dynasty jade carving made to look like bok choy.

Han to Qing dynasty: the second floor

The second floor covers the flowering of Chinese civilization from the end of the Han to the Qing dynasty (221–1911). Here the range of artwork, media and materials expands dramatically from porcelain and ceramics, to fine art, jewellery and sculpture. The museum’s rare collection of silk-screen painting and calligraphy (West Wing galleries) is truly magnificent, beginning with masterpieces from the Song dynasty (960–1279), when landscape watercolour painting was reaching its zenith: highlights include Fan K’uan’s Travellers Among Mountains and Streams, the lyrical Storied Mountains and Dense Forests by Chu-jan and Early Spring by Guo Xi (note that paintings are usually on display for no longer than three months at a time to prevent light damage). The museum also has an extensive collection of Ming and Qing dynasty artwork.

China’s golden age, the Tang dynasty (618–907), is best represented by the first ceramics gallery (201). The era is one of the few in Chinese history when plump women were considered attractive: the earthenware figures of suitably curvaceous court ladies are indicative of the period. Porcelain and ceramics also flourished in the Song dynasty (960–1279). Don’t miss the rare rŭ yáo ceramic Narcissus Basin in bluish-green glaze (gallery 205), a container dating from Northern Song dynasty.

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) galleries (205 and 207) feature the best of China’s porcelain and ceramics, much of it from the famous kilns at Jingdezhen. The intricate Doucai Cup with Chickens and Blue-and-white Flat Vase with Figures are considered the most accomplished pieces from the early part of the era (gallery 205).

The Qing dynasty (1644–1911) collections (galleries 209 and 211) contain a staggering number of artworks from elaborate cloisonné and high-quality porcelain to ornate jade and stone carvings (note that some of the most spectacular olive stone carvings are usually on display in gallery 304).

The first floor

The first floor has permanent galleries dedicated to Qing dynasty furniture (108), a vast array of religious sculptural art (101) and arts from the Qing Imperial collection (mostly intricate curio boxes; 106). Galleries 103 and 104 show rotating exhibits from the rare books and documents departments.

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