June 17, 2011

That other China.

Quick, now: what nation boasts an unbroken culture of 3,000 years, a thriving Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian tradition, one of the world’s great cuisines, and the finest collection of Chinese art on the planet?

The answer, of course is China – that other China, 121 miles across the jade green waters of Taiwan Strait on the rugged island of Taiwan. In the flush of great expectations, travelers tent to pass Taiwan on their rush to China, on the mainland. That is unfortunate for the Republic of China, as it calls itself, offers some of the best travel values and scenic vistas in today’s Asia. Despite it’s astonishing economic rise, it has lovingly preserved the ancient Chinese culture. Taiwan’s attractions are ample reason to choose it as an independent destination.

True, Taiwan boasts no Great Wall, no Forbidden City, no Temple of Heaven. The island republic stands as a reminder that culture is not just monuments to a great and storied past but a state of mind that binds one generation to another and unites the past to the living present. Under Mao, literature, art, and history were made to serve the class struggle – rewritten, redrawn, banned, and destroyed at whim. Confucianism, the foundation of the Chinese social order, was purged. Buddhism and Taoism, China’s principal faiths, were suppressed. The Chinese written character, the essence of the Chinese aesthetic, was “simplified”. The food, which 2,700 years ago the sage Kwan Tze declared to be “heaven”, went to hell. “Every winter some aspect of culture disappears for good,” writes the Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans), “some cultural legacy of the past is gone forever, and every spring there are fewer flowers.”

China’s flowers are blooming in Taiwan. The Confucian tradition is alive and well. Buddhism and Taoism are living faiths to believers young and old. Poetry, calligraphy, painting, drama, music, and the dance are thriving. And, all over the Island one encounters that zest the Chinese call ren-ch’ing-wei: a combination of furious energy, unfailing hospitality, and raucous delight in just being alive – and Chinese. The Communists may have won the mainland, but lost the culture. It is in Taiwan.

Taipei, the capital, is the obvious and richly rewarding place to embark on one's discoveries. A building boom has changed the city's size and shape and made it one of the world's most densely populated metropolises. It is an unplanned, over-crowded city, gray, and to me, unappealing.

But Taipei's soul remains Chinese-and nothing underscores that more dramatically than the magnificent old Grand Hotel, a red-and-gold, pagoda-roofed behemoth that looms over the city, like the imperial palace of some ancient emperor.
The Grand is the largest, and surely the gaudiest, structure ever built in China's classical Ming architectural style.

Its lobby, which is roughly the size of Wrigley Field, boasts forty-two red pillars five feet thick, eight blue-carpeted parlors upholstered in blue-and-gold-brocaded silk, a white marble staircase fourteen yards wide, and a gold loom carpet so large it took twenty-four Chinese workmen nine months at two shifts a day to weave. Guest rooms are similarly outsize; the terraces alone are larger than most rooms in the newer hotels. To some, it is all a bit much.

So, certainly, is the National Palace Museum, known as the Kukung (Old Palace), a short taxi ride from the Grand.

The Kukung is the repository of no fewer than 242,592 masterworks dating back more than ten centuries before Christ. James Cahill, a historian of Chinese art, calls the trove, in terms of both size and splendor, "simply incomparable".

The collection was begun by Tai-tzu, founder of the Sung dynasty, more than a thousand years ago, but it was chiefly amassed in the eighteenth century by the Ch'ing dynasty's illustrious Ch'ien-Iung emperor. Its 27,398 paintings and pieces of calligraphy date back 1,700 years. Its 23,863 pieces of porcelain go back to the thirteenth century (and include 23 of the 35 pieces of Ju ware known to exist in the world). Its 4,389 bronzes and 4,636 pieces of jade go back to the dawn of recorded time. Only a tiny portion of the holdings is ever on display. Most of the rest  2,345 cratefuls - is stored in two bombproof, temperature-and-humidity-controlled tunnels that wind the length of three football fields into the mountain that backs the museum. Museum officials claim they could change their entire display every six months and not repeat themselves for thirty years.

No less astounding was the sixteen-year odyssey that brought the treasures to Taiwan. It began in Beijing's Forbidden City, their original home, when Japanese forces overran Manchuria in 1931. Perceiving the threat to China proper, museum officials spirited the trove south by night, aboard six big trains, to Shanghai, and thence, as war clouds darkened, to Nanking, 150 miles inland. In 1937, with the onset of full-scale war, it was split into three separate caches and transported by truck, train, and riverboat, a step ahead of Japanese bombers, to the farthest southern and western reaches of the nation.

It survived fire, rains, mountain landslides, and insect plague, to be returned at wars end to Nanking-only to be threatened anew by the resumption of civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalists). In late 1948, with the Nationalist regime collapsing and Communist armies closing in on the city, Han Lih-wu, then Nationalist minister of education, somehow commandeered three decrepit ships and loaded the treasures aboard. They sailed out the Yangtze River mouth under the barrels of Communist guns, across the strait to safety on Taiwan. "In all that time, over all those miles," says Dr. Han, "there was not so much as a teacup broken!"

While most of the Ku-kung holdings rotate on and off display, certain exhibitions are now permanently established. One features a time line based in part on Joseph Needham's monumental Science and Civilization in China; it lays down the history of Chinese art against cultural and scientific milestones elsewhere. A spacious new gallery is intended to serve as a lasting bridge between old and new. Its rotating exhibition, under the title "Creating from Tradition," includes a wild, Tao-inspired contemporary wood sculpture, entitled Sword Dance of Lady Kung-sun, set against the equally wild cursive script of the eighth-century calligrapher Huai-su. Singled out for special notice are three completed permanent installations: exquisite snuff bottles from the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911), Hindustan jade, and the ink stone collection of Un Po-shou, the late industrialist.

If this all sounds esoteric, be reassured. Unlike mainland museums, where legends invariably are in Chinese alone-and are often misleading even in Chinese-the Ku-kung provides clear, informative English legends, free information sheets explaining each exhibit, knowledgeable, friendly English-speaking guides, and English-language lectures on Chinese art. And if one wearies of the galleries, one may contemplate timeless beauty in the museum's Chih Shan Garden, a Sung-style Eden of winding pathways, bare wood pavilions, and celadon green ponds, replete with mandarin ducks and swans and reminiscent of old Soochow.

If the Ku-kung is the past brought forward, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, across the river from the Grand, is the future looking back.

The night begins and ends with food, and Taipei's food is as varied as China itself. When the mainland fell, the great chefs from all over the nation followed their moneyed, Kuomintang patrons to Taiwan and turned Taipei into the world's greatest Chinese restaurant. Gastronomically speaking, one can travel the length and breadth of China within Taipei's city limits. An after-dinner stroll through Taipei's Hsimen (West Gate) district is a splendid way to end a day. Any and all of Taipei's streets and alleys are safe, except for traffic.

“The compassionate man goes to the mountain,” Confucius declared. “The wise man goes to the seaside.” To the traveler possessed of both virtues, Taiwan offers both climes: no fewer than sixty-two peaks on the island soar above 10,000 feet. In these, along the shores, and in the lush subtropical countryside between, one sees Taiwan as Portuguese sailors did in the sixteenth century, they named the island Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island).

The 120-mile East-West Cross-Island Highway, running from just outside Hualien, a city of marble facing the Pacific, across the island's high mountain spine to Tungshih, near Taichung, is on no account to be missed. Hacked out of marble and granite by Kuomintang-army civil-war veterans, the road tunnels and snakes through breath-catching Taroko Gorge; over Chin Heng (Flowing Fragrance) Bridge, where waterfalls tumble hundreds of feet through a jungle fastness spangled with black-and-yellow butter-flies; through Yin-tzu Kou (Swallows' Grotto) and the Tunnel of Nine Turns, where dripping, black-rock half tunnels open on the gorge, swarms of passerines dart and swoop, and gnarled, stunted pines jut from granite cliffs that plunge to the thundering Li Wu (Fog) riverbed, far below. At the Shrine of Eternal Spring, a monument to the 450 workers who perished while building the road, a narrow footpath twines up through mossy rocks and wild orchids, green ferns, blue morning glories, and a giant bamboo grove trilling with crickets to a tiny pavilion on a ledge of a cliff. Here a Westerner can sense the inspiration for Chinese landscape painting-and perhaps catch a glimpse of Tung-t'ien, the Taoist dream of paradise.

Forty-five kilometers inland, the gorge opens into a giant bowl. Mountains stack behind mountains. A tributary spills into the Li Wu in a careless jumble of giant boulders. Dangling above them, a suspension bridge leads to a mountainside shrine and a pagoda silhouetted

against the sky. Atop a promontory sprawls comfortable, red-and-white Tienhsiang Lodge, a decent place to eat and spend the night. And the best of reasons for doing so is to listen to the river tumbling through the night and then awaken in the cool of dawn, watch the sun's bright light splash one peak after another, and reflect a moment on the grandiloquent words carved in a marble slab on the nearby mountainside, the last words of Wen Tienhsiang, for whom the inn was named. Captured by Mongol invaders more than seven hundred years ago and about to be put to death, he said this:  "There is an aura in the universe which permeates all things and makes them what they are. In man it is called spirit, and there is nowhere it is not."

Farther south, nestled in the dense green foliage of the same mountain spine, lies tranquil, beautiful Sun Moon Lake. In the Chinese yin-yang cosmology, the sun represents the yang, or male element; the moon rep-resents the yin, or female. Uniting the two, the lake, not surprisingly, is a honeymooners' idyll.

And a poet's dream. From the airy, open Moon Terrace restaurant at the hotel, the reflection of the moon shimmering on the water recalls Li Bai, the lonely T'ang dynasty poet, who, drunk with wine, set forth in his rowboat to embrace the moon's bright image. "I raise my cup to the moon to join me," Li Bai wrote. "With my shadow, we make a party of three." On a later boating expedition, alas, Li reached out, lost his balance, and drowned.

The sights around the lake call up old China, too. At the south end of the lake rises the elegant, nine-tier Tzu-en (Filial Piety) Pagoda, erected by the late president Chiang Kai-shek to honor the memory of his mother. The fabulous view from the top, unfolding for miles in all directions, is worth the climb.

On a knoll just downhill from the pagoda stands Hsuan Tsang Temple, one of the most important in all China. A seventh century Buddhist monk who spent seventeen years studying and wandering in India, Hsuan Tsang returned to his homeland with more than 1,000 sacred Buddhist sutras and spent the last two decades of his life translating them into Chinese. Inside the temple are two miniature gold pagodas: one holds a shard, said to have been verified, of the holy man's skull; the other, nineteen pure white stones believed to be his immortal remains, exhumed from the ashes of his cremation.

By far the most popular of Taiwan's mountain resorts is Alishan village, in Yushan (Jade Mountain) National Park. The journey to it begins in the little city of Chiayi, on the western plain, where an old, narrow-gauge diesel-powered onetime logging train departs each morning at eight o'clock for a spectacular, three hour climb that crosses 114 bridges and burrows through 50 tunnels in an ascent from steamy, subtropical lowlands into chilly alpine forests. Here, stone paths twine among towering stands of cypress, juniper, and pine, through a plum garden adorned with fragile foxglove, and around tranquil Sisters Pond, where local growers sell a superb, light-gold tea, called ying-hua ch' a, found nowhere else in the world.

To Taiwan Chinese, Alishan's greatest attraction is the sunrise over Yushan, across a misty valley.

The rustic Alishan Guest House offers food and rest-and a summons for the train ride to the summit at the awful hour of 3:30 A.M. Come rain or sometimes even snow, the train is packed with Chinese tourists. In Chinese lore, morning clouds and mountain mists embody the spirit of the goddess of Sorcery Mountain. Their presence is a metaphor for the mating of heaven and earth; the mountain mist is the source of chi, the life force, which brings longevity to those who inhale it. Rising 13,114 feet into the clouds and mists of the Central Range, Yushan is the highest peak in east-central Asia, higher even than Japan's Mount Fuji. At daybreak, the sun's first rays light up a sea of clouds that stretches off as far as the eye can see, and Yushan summit is utterly redolent of chi.

Taiwan's rugged eastern coastline is no less dramatic, in its way, than its central mountains. At Yehliu (Wild Willows), on the island's northern tip, vast coral bluffs the color of sand have been sculpted over time by savage winds and seas into strange and wondrous shapes - giant mushrooms, stupas, even a formation called Queen's Head, resembling a profile of Nefertiti.

Midway down the island, the Suao-Hualien Highway dips and snakes for 69 tortuous miles across the face of black-rock cliffs that plunge as much as 2,600 feet into the perpetually raging Pacific.

And on 18.5 square miles of Taiwan's southernmost Hengchun (Eternal Spring) Peninsula, Kenting (pronounced kun-ding) National Park presents an array of wonders above and below ground and water-among them a botanical garden, bird preserve, and ecologically protected tropical rain forest, an upland cattle, sheep, and goat ranch, a tangle of limestone caves, a tidewater moon-scape of coral tableland, an undersea Eden for scuba divers, safe, swimmable warm-water beaches, and one tidal boulder playfully dubbed Ni-ke-shen Tou (Nixon's Head), bearing a remarkable resemblance to the former U.S. president, up to his nose in the waters of the South China Sea.

The one place that best sums up Taiwan's devotion to old China is the tiny coastal town of Lukang (Deer Harbor), on the Taiwan Strait. Throughout the late Ming and Ch'ing dynasties (from the seventeenth century to the revolution of 1911), Lukang was a major commercial-crafts center and bustling port of entry for emigrating mainlanders. It was known then as San Pu-chien (Three No-See-'Ums) City: residents never saw the ground, because it was covered with firecracker paper left over from the birthday celebration for Matzu, the patron deity of Taiwan fishermen; they never saw the sky, because Lukang's streets were roofed over against typhoons; and they never saw a virgin, because proper Chinese maidens scurried across the rooftops rather than be seen in the public streets.

Today, Lukang's roofs are mostly gone; the girls putt-putt by on motor scooters, skirts aswirl. But tradition remains very much alive. Matzu Temple, whose statue of the deity was brought to the island by Manchu invaders in 1684, remains jam-packed day and night-and the temple grounds are still strewn with firecracker paper. Food carts crowd around it, proffering old-fashioned, quick-fried flat breads called niu-shi-ping (ox-tongue cakes). In open-front shops along the narrow, crowded streets, cabinetmakers, calligraphers, wood-carvers, and makers of incense, lanterns, fans, dolls, and silk butterflies and birds pursue their ancient crafts just as they always have done. In the Lukang Folk Arts Museum, a creaky, Sino-French provincial mansion built 200 years ago and deeded to the government in 1973, one walks among the household effects of a Chinese-gentry family-elaborately carved furniture, brocaded costumes, old books and musical instruments, even a gallery of grainy gray photographs depicting women with bound feet, sing-song houses, opium dens, and the brutalizing effects of China's nineteenth-century collision with the West.

Open to visitors is a cultural center, featuring one gallery of classical painting, pottery, and calligraphy (including a number of copies of Ming and Ching that can be purchased at remarkably modest prices), one of traditional crafts, as well as a dim sum parlor, an airy roofed court, and an old fashioned tea house, where classical airs are played on ancient Chinese instruments.

Totally rebuild was the magnificent, eighteenth-century Lungshan (Dragon Mountain) Temple, in Lukang, one of Taiwan's oldest landmarks. "Our past tells us who we are. It is our duty to preserve it."

An old friend of mine still greets visitors with a vise like handshake and an earnest "Huan-yin, huan-yin!" ("Welcome, welcome!"). He may add in classical Chinese, "When friends visit from afar, is this not indeed a pleasure!" It is his own little joke, one that foreign visitors rarely understand but that, like Lukang itself, is in keeping with Chinese tradition. The words are the opening lines of the Lun yu-better known in the West as the Analects of Confucius.


Ms. Edna (squared) said...

Hello from the other side of the Pacific. Thank you, smashing post.
And, Happy Father's Day.

frenchtoast said...

WOW Charles, intense!
Thank you, where do you find the words?

Alistair said...

Thank you, I'm armchair traveling. Such a joy. No delays, no upsets, no problems...

Mona said...

I am glad you find this subject fascinating, still.

Ms Edna's gaggle of fans said...

Inspite of the political reality...
I wanted to say that I enjoy the writings and photos you share, so keep at it. :)

An American in Taiwan said...

Taiwan is a wonderful country with some of the greatest people ever. Sure, there as people that aren't the best, that's anywhere you go.
Me, I have been here in Taiwan for over two years and should be over the 'honeymoon phase' but it's yet to completely fade. And if I ever decide to chronicle my time here, I'll pass on the political aspect, unless someone can convince me that I can do something to change it.
Yes, thank’s for keeping the politics out of your post. Happy exploring!

inspiration said...

F.Y.I. Ms. Edna = music for your ears
the City of Kaohsiung, Taiwan
designed by the Architect Toyo Ito
consisting of 8'844 Solar Panels in the Roof
the structure is shaped like a dragon
it seats 50,000

Ms. Edna (squared) said...

thank you inspiration-
that is something, as is the blog.
thank you for the link ;-0

A(ngela) and A(ndrew) at home said...

Great post, laddy. Thank you for sharing.
Word of caution-
come home soon, Mona has discovered your secret stash!

Charles said...

Rats! I will have to declare an emergency and get a military escort home NOW.

Mona said...

Too late "laddy"-
stash has been re-located to a very secret "higher" elevation.

Baldur v. O. said...

Dear Charles,
thank you for a most enjoyable post. And yes, thank you for omitting your political view, which I know, and have shared with you, in many inspired conversations.
A continued safe journey.

Charles said...

You are welcome, and thank you.
On my return, I will have many observations to share to fill hours of lively discussions both political/economic and cultural. Keep your eye and the ‘other continents’.