China’s Magnificent Memory Bank
MANY people find history on the printed page boring; but I’m not a history book. I present history in the round. I am Taiwan’s National Palace Museum.
It took 3,000 wooden cases to bring my treasures to their present location in the suburb of Shih Lin at the edge of Taipei. Because of the periodic changes of my displays I cannot lead you on a room-by-room tour. Those changes take place every three months; yet it is said that if you visited during each display period it would take you ten years to see all my trove.
Let us go back in time to the very fringes of human memory in the Far East. Do you see those old, dried-out buff-colored bones? They are oracle bones, used for divination. They are cracked because this was the means of gaining the sought-for answer. They would drill tiny holes in the bone, apply heat and wait for the cracks to develop. Then they would write on each bone the events concerning which questions had been asked. That was during the Shang dynasty.
My Record in Bronze
The Shang dynasty lasted perhaps 650 years, down till the time of Saul the king of Israel. Its record has been made in a most durable form: bronze. The samples I show are for ritual use and not everyday household items. The Chinese are practical. A vessel can be made to stand on three legs; therefore our earliest containers are poised on three legs, not four. Yet these vessels are made beautifully, with rich decoration.
Like all the human family, the Chinese like music. Our earliest musical instruments are represented here in bronze bells. You may be surprised at how large they are. You would be more surprised if you tipped them up and could see that there are no clappers. They are true musical instruments because each gives a variety of tones when struck from the outside by a mallet. The tones vary from bottom to top on the bell.
Our record in bronze continues into one of the longest dynasties in history, the Chou. In it the Chinese dragon appears, and the bronzes of this era carry readable inscriptions, some running to more than four hundred characters. My history is in the form of real objects handed down through time, many carrying history written, not by historians, but by people writing in their own time about themselves.
The Ch’in dynasty was very short; just fifteen years in the third century B.C.E. But what it left behind was very long—the Great Wall of China; fifteen hundred miles in length. No part of that wall is here, but the Chinese talent with walls is evidenced in my own facade and the grounds surrounding me. I sit upon the topmost of two man-made plateaus, backed into deeply forested mountains. Tunnels run into deep recesses in these mountains to shelter the priceless items awaiting display.
At the time that Jesus Christ walked this earth, the Han dynasty was almost 200 years old, with yet another 200 years to go. This period is represented in bronzes too. I would like to call your attention to a bronze jar or jardiniere. It appears to be caught in a net of rope. Close inspection will show you that the “rope” is part of the bronze work itself!
“More musical instruments!” you say as you see the cases having round flat pieces of bronze with knobs in the middle. No, they are not cymbals. Try again. “Potlids?” No. Those “potlids” if turned over would offer a shining surface that long ago was used as a mirror.
Ceramic and Porcelain Treasures
A time of turmoil followed the Han dynasty as three kingdoms and six dynasties tumbled over one another in the next two hundred years. I will hurry you past these and those that followed the Northern and Southern dynasties and the Sui to bring you to the T’ang dynasty, of the eleventh century. I anxious for you to see our T’ang horse. It is ceramic. When it was made it was surfaced with colors. Now only a hint of its brilliance remains in the red of its mane. The beauty of its form, the whole sense of artistic and physical balance overcomes the loss of color. The animal is poised with one hoof held high in a proud stance. It is a large piece: two and a half feet from hoof to mane, and a touch more than two feet from nose to tail.
Six dynasties occupied the next 218 years, but now, let me lead you past these to the magnificence of the Sung dynasty. Europe lay in the grasp of the Dark Ages when Sung artistry glowed serenely across four centuries of China’s culture. Literature, the arts, architecture and furniture reached a pinnacle of expression perhaps not matched since. I have much to show you of the versatility of the epoch. Now let me explain this period in terms of porcelain. Our Sung porcelain items are muted, monochromatic—one color emphasizing the purity of the glazes used. I have a Western friend who often comes to visit me and who views my Ju ware (pronounced Roo) as my greatest treasure. You wonder why?
Let me tell you. First, that particular color cannot be had on demand. It was a gift of the Ju kiln, a transmutation, a color change taking place in the kiln. Secondly, in the Sung period the purpose of working in porcelain ware was to try to imitate the peculiar soft, translucent glow and color of jade, as well as its cool, smooth “feel.” The Chinese treasured jade in all its colors. But they wished to copy the white jade and that hue of the lighter off-green. In Ju ware it was achieved. If you could reach inside the case you would feel the third reason. Its “feel” is so smooth that it is the equal of jade. In all the world there are just some thirty known Ju-ware items, and twenty-three of them are here.
Down from Mongolia thundered the hordes of Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. By sword and Tartar pony, they sought to smash the Sung tranquillity. The heritage Sung had left to China’s vast population could not be erased by this barbaric foreigner! The dynastic lines were erased, but China absorbed its conquerors. In time, Genghis’ grandson Kublai Khan ruled in all the silk and ivory splendor of Cathay over what was, by now, called the Yüan dynasty.
The Yüan dynasty gave way to the Ming dynasty, during which time Columbus sailed to the Americas. Let us enter the display area for Ming porcelains. Did I hear you gasp? It was a combination of surprise and pleasure, wasn’t it? The brilliant colors of the Ming wares are breathtaking! In this dynasty’s display you will notice a high-stemmed bowl. It has green dragons on a brilliant yellow base color. The technique was to engrave the design on the unglazed base, then later fill it with color. Ultimately Ming artisans learned to control color so it neither “bled” nor ran out of control in firing.
The Ch’ing dynasty followed the Ming, and with it the door closed in 1911 on the Chinese dynasties. China at last discarded its royal lines. However, the Ch’ing legacy to China was not only the prolific work of their own artisans, but also the palace accumulation of items of preceding dynasties. These form the nucleus of my collection.
Ivory, Lacquer Ware and Jade
Let us leave porcelain, which continued to be beautifully produced in this time, to talk of ivory as a representative work for this era. One skill that never fails to enchant visitors is that of carving ivory balls. The carving is so delicate that it looks like fine lace. Yet it is not just the lacework that enchants. They are spheres within spheres carved from one piece of ivory. One of these has thirteen movable layers, one inside the other. Each ball can be rotated within the others.
Still another is what is perhaps the world’s most elegant lunch box. It is a layered group of oval boxes carved of ivory so fine that each is less than the thickness of a flat toothpick. It is made as an airy screenwork to keep the food cool and yet free from insects. There are those visitors who must be convinced that it is not made of stiffly starched lace!
Miniaturization is another Chinese talent. The ivory collection includes a small excursion boat just two inches long. Every detail is sharp and clear. Passengers are visible inside the boat, and the cabin windows slide back and forth.
Here we have arrived at the present, and yet I have not even mentioned my carved lacquer ware. As many as thirty-six coats of lacquer would be carefully applied to a surface, each time drying and being sanded, and then followed by another. Then the carver would take over. His task was to carve the lacquer, not the wood beneath it. In some instances different colors of lacquer were applied, and the carver would carve to the desired color layer, and not go through it. Some of my pieces are deeply carved and have three colors in their designs.
One of my richest collections is jade. I have saved it because it belongs to no one dynasty. Chinese respect for jade is the warp yarn of the long tapestry of our cultural history. I possess both the oldest and the largest jades in the world. I can show you among later jades a stalk of white-stemmed Chinese cabbage topped with green leaves and two green grasshoppers. This was all accomplished without paint or dye, but by using the skilled eye of its carver to recognize the possibilities of the run of color in the raw material.
My Scroll Paintings
And what of painting? In Chinese scrolls my history becomes most explicit. If you ever come to visit me, I hope that at least one of two famous scrolls will be on display. “The City of Cathay” is a remarkable record of life in dynasties past. It is a horizontal or hand scroll, 37.82 feet long! The viewer starts at the mouth of a river; and the eye travels its banks passing through countryside, outlying areas and finally to the city. Thousands of figures, tiny and intricate, people the scene. From these one has a picture of life, of dress, of commerce—a pictorial view of the past that speaks beyond words.
The other great hand scroll is the one called “The One Hundred Horses.” It is a 25.46-foot-long landscape, filled with horses of every kind in every stage of use and life. One or two dead ones are there. Let me first ask you, though, do you notice that Chinese painting is a “style” you can recognize? Can you pinpoint what makes it “feel” Chinese to you? Two important things are involved. Perspective, which is always as though you are hanging by a hook out in the air, hovering over the scene as viewed. The other is the absence of shadows. Distance is created by painting things darker if they are close to you, and lighter if distant.
In “The One Hundred Horses,” however, you may note that there are shadows. Furthermore, the eyes of the horses possess highlights, a device not used by Chinese painters. Yet you still feel this painting is Chinese. You are right. All the techniques of Chinese style were used by the artist, but those two Western techniques were added. The artist is known in China as Lang Shih-ning. He was a painter at the Ch’ing dynasty court at the beginning of the 1700’s. However, he was born Guiseppe Castiglione, and came to China as a Jesuit priest. He is the only foreigner reckoned by Chinese as a Chinese painter.
Items Used in Buddhist Rites
One other foreign influence infiltrated China, yet failed to be absorbed and was lost in the massive embrace of China’s populace. That was Buddhism, which retains its Indian forms and terms and exerts its mighty influence on Chinese thought and life. Why do I, a museum, mention this? It is because it is part of my memory bank. Out of Tibet came esoteric (possessed of mysteries known only to the initiated) Buddhism to be accepted and performed in the Imperial Palace in Peiping and the Summer Palace in Jehol. My collection contains items used in these rites. It appears as a courtship with death. I can show you an iron-skull rosary, or a carved ivory “apron” to be worn by the priest, replete with death’s-heads. Cups made of human skulls such as I display were used to contain offerings to the gods. Usually only the skulls of nobles and high priests were used. Still another item made of a skull is the skull drum used in temple orchestras. It is made from the top of two skulls of children, joined crown to crown, and the open surfaces covered with lamb or monkey skin. Another musical instrument is a human leg-bone trumpet fitted with a metal mouthpiece. These are not artistically crude, rather, they are elegantly painted and adorned.
One is caught by an underlying tone of religious similarities, not only in the use of rosaries but also in the dress of priests that I have on display. Miters in my collection match their equivalents in Western religions. Many visitors comment on this. Would you like to see more? Come, pay me a visit.
We have only scratched the surface of what I have to show between my history-book covers, as well as what I have to tell you about the history of my country and my people—the most numerous upon the face of the earth. I have a very long memory.—Contributed.