The history of the more than 700,000 artifacts housed within the National Palace Museum’s walls is a long one. Beginning in the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), emperors began amassing collections of the finest paintings, bronzes, calligraphy works and precious artifacts from around the empire. Subsequent dynasties, particularly the Qing (1644-1911), added huge numbers of additional treasures. Most of these items were tucked away for centuries behind the well-guarded gates of Beijing’s Forbidden City, viewable only by the imperial family and select guests.
When the last emperor was finally exiled following the Chinese Revolution, the incredible treasures were put on display for the public for the first time. However, this showing was short lived. When the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, the museum’s collections were quickly whisked away to safe houses in southern China. Despite being moved, several times, sometimes by ox cart and raft, as the battle lines changed over nearly a decade of warfare, nearly all of the artifacts made it through the war unscathed.
But due to continued conflict between the Nationalist and Communist armies in the years following the Japanese surrender, 4,800 cases housing the collection’s most valuable pieces moved to Taiwan in 1949. There they remained hidden in a sugar warehouse until a worthy venue to showcase the priceless art could be completed. The National Palace Museum opened at its currently location in Taipei in 1965. Today, the museum draws crowds of over three million visitors each year.
The Museum, a sprawling, elegantly designed complex built in the classical Chinese architecture style, features hipped roofs, bright turquoise and yellow roof tiles and white stone interior detailing. It’s hard to believe the original building was constructed in only one year. Several renovations have further expanded the size of the exhibit space. At any one time, over 6,000 objects can now be displayed.
As you enter, the first floor features an informative orientation gallery that provides background on the various dynasties and the more than 5,000 years of history covered by the collections. The first floor also includes the museum’s rare books gallery and an impressive array of religious sculptures.
On the second floor, stroll through the fabulous display of Chinese ceramics, featuring pieces dating from the Neolithic age through the five dynasties. Calligraphy, painting and an interactive video area can also be explored on this floor.
Bronzes, jewelry and weaponry, as well as magnificently carved jade sculptures are housed on the third floor. Here’s where you’ll find crowds hovered around the famous "Jadeite Cabbage with Insect," an exquisitely carved, jade masterwork from the Qing dynasty, featuring a delicately fashioned katydid and locust nestled between the vegetable’s leaves.
The artifacts rotate frequently, but it would take a lifetime to see the entire collection of over 4,400 ancient bronzes, 24,000 pieces of porcelain, 13,000 paintings, 14,000 works of calligraphy and 4,600 jade carvings, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of rare book, documents and diaries from the imperial library. This spring’s special exhibits feature silk screens from the great masters of the Ming Dynasty, famous works from modern Chinese painting and calligraphy and a fascinating exhibit on the art of snuff bottles.
If the size of the collection feels daunting, join an English-language guided tour, offered by the museum at 10am and 3pm, or pick up an audio guide at the entrance.
If you need a break to absorb the centuries of artistic craftsmanship, head to the Sanxitang Teahouse on the top floor for regional teas, dim sum and a delicious selection of other, mostly vegetarian bites, or stroll through the museum's 200 acre grounds, which feature gardens dotted with secluded pavilions and picturesque ponds swimming with carp and the occasional swan. Be sure to check out the Zhishan Garden, a small but beautiful and historically accurate recreation of a Song dynasty (AD 960-1279) garden.