Why Taiwan?

8 08 2007

With so many countries and places to visit to experience Chinese culture, this is a question that comes up quite a lot when I am talking to friends about visiting Taiwan.  Obviously I have a very compelling reason to go myself because of my roots, but I believe that Taiwan is worthwhile to visit even if you do not have relatives or business interests on the island.

I think Cindy Loose of the Washington Post received the best answer when she asked this very question in an article she wrote on Taiwan in 2004 (“And Now, Taiwan“, March 14, 2004, Washington Post Travel Section). 

“Why should tourists go to Taiwan instead of, say, Hong Kong or mainland China?”

Rather than taking offense, Cherng-tyan Su, director of the Taiwanese tourism bureau, gives an intriguing answer. “Hong Kong has a colonized Chinese culture. True Chinese culture should be in China, but the cultural heritage has been broken by 50 years of Communist Party rule, the Cultural Revolution and the interference with religion.

“In Taiwan,” he promises, “you will find the true, unbroken, traditional Chinese culture.” Here too, he says, you will find in a compact area all the regional cuisines of China and the cultures of 10 aboriginal tribes.

While China is certainly a must-see for those who are studying or interested in Chinese culture, Taiwan provides a wonderful juxtaposition.  Not only is it considered by some as an example of an unfettered Chinese society, but it is also the only true Chinese democracy, albeit a very young one.  The first large wave of Chinese immigrants began settling Taiwan in the Ming Dynasty in the 1600s.  The next major wave of Chinese settlers were comprised of Chinese nationalists fleeing Mao’s communist party in 1949.  During World War II, Taiwan was also occupied by the Japanese.

If the evolution of Chinese culture in modern times is of interest to you, I would also suggest Singapore and overseas Chinese communities as places to visit.  Singapore was a former British colony that was then part of Malaysia before gaining independence.  With a population that is over 75% Chinese, this city-state is a good example of a modern, wealthy, and rigid Chinese society (with Malay and Indian influences) that is focused on Western-style advancement.  English is the official language and the main language used in schools.  In terms of overseas Chinese communities, Chinatowns around the world are a wonderful introduction to Chinese culture, although they will be heavily influenced by where these Chinese immigrants originated.  Most Chinatowns in the US, for example, are dominated by Cantonese speaking Chinese from Hong Kong or Canton.

As a further cultural enticement, Taiwan has the largest and most valuable collection of Chinese Imperial treasures in the world, including China.  Since around the year 1000 A.D., Chinese emperors have acquired the empire’s greatest antiques, art, and treasures and kept them in the Forbidden City in Beijing.  After the last emperor of China was deposed, these treasures were catalogued and stored until the Japanese invaded China.  The treasures were then packed and moved many times to protect them from the Japanese forces.  When the Communists began to take power in China, the head of the Nationalists moved the most valuable treasures to Taiwan for safekeeping, where they have been resided since.  This Imperial collection is housed in the National Palace Museum, where anyone can now visit for less than $5 US.  Apparently the collection is so large that only a small portion is displayed at one time on a rotation basis.  

Three of the most famous pieces of the collection at the National Palace Museum in Taipei include the carving of a jade cabbage, a sculture carved from stone of a hunk of pork dipped in soy sauce and an ivory carving featuring 21 concentric balls nestled within each other.  The carvings utilize the naturally occuring color and texture to their advantage.

Pork StoneIvory Ball

Jade Cabbage

I am looking forward to visiting the National Palace Museum as an adult.  When I last visited I was 13 and was not too enthusiastic about spending hours in a museum, no matter the subject.  I will certainly be on the look out for these food-related carvings!




2 responses

8 08 2007

“unbroken chinese culture”? of how many years? and china has hundreds and hundreds of aboriginal tribes too, not just 10. 🙂

and true chinese democracy is an oxymoron.

haha, just nitpicking here, keep up the posts! 😀

8 08 2007

I think the Taiwanese official was just saying that in addition to unbroken Chinese rule, you can ALSO find a bunch of regional Chinese cuisines and some aboriginal cultures all in the smallish area of Taiwan.

Chinese democracy does seem to be a challenge so far! But again, emphasis on the YOUNG democracy part.

Thanks for your comments P!

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