Taipei Day

Dr Ben rousted me out about 7am to take me to the bullet train to Taipei. Jimmy, another physiatrist, met me there and took me on a whirlwind tour of the sights. First stop was the National Museum of Taiwan – but really it is the cultural history of China – housed in a huge, temple-like building (honestly, an oriental version of Mussolini’s grand ‘typewriter’ in Rome, crossed with the Potala) with the curved roofs tucked into the sharp hills at the edge of Taipei. History has not been kind to Chiang Kai-Sheck, but when he retreated to Taiwan ahead of the communist victory on the mainland, he took with him a number of the cultural treasures of China. Though Mao said he ‘stole’ them, given the destructive excesses of the Cultural Revolution, it is now recognized as a good thing – he ‘saved’ them.

There’s nothing like a visit to a museum covering 5000 years of civilization to reduce your ego to pinprick size and put your tiny life into larger perspective. Room after room of exquisite bronzes, jades, carvings, calligraphy melded one dynasty to another into a blur of I-can’t-tell-you-what-was-when-ness ( But a couple of high points:

* The paintings that launched the Chinese landscaping detail style we all know and love began in the 11th century, and the original works were so heartbreakingly beautiful and so breathtakingly spiritual that the grand European landscapes of seven centuries later seem childish in comparison.

* The scholarly calligraphy is art in itself – how do they all remember so many characters?

* They seem to regard the detailed ivory carving as a small side-show that boggled the Europeans. We’ve all seen the ball within a ball, but the one example in this museum had 17 balls, each exquisitely carved in patterns, one inside the other, and all carved from a single original piece with special tools like dentist’s picks. In the same room were little snuff bottles that had intricate scenes painted on the inside, painted with tiny curved brushes stuck in through the top.

* But they were quite rightfully proud of an olive pit boat (a large olive pit, to be sure, but still only about 2″ long) that had the boat and eight figures aboard, all under the awning, and all in dress and attitude that conveyed clearly (a magnifying glass was provided for the viewer) who each person was and what they were doing. One group is clearly discussing the merits of the tea they are drinking, and no figure is above a couple of millimeters high. Steady hands and infinite patience.

* Jade, from the simple rings of old to the complex scenes quite like the ivory and the olive pit – and like the wood carvings yesterday, they make startling use of the natural color differences in the jade. One of a fish, a carp, leaping. If the fish can make the leap into the air correctly, it will become a dragon (a step up the Chinese evolutionary ladder). This one was probably a gift to an emperor who was making such a cultural ‘leap’, to propitiate the gods and remind him of the rewards of success. Another, of jade-ite, a startlingly real (again, because of the use of natural color) rendition of a cabbage (bok choy) with a beetle and a grasshopper on the leaves. This one also had a political message – a reminder to the emperor to pick the right advisors.

* The most affecting was also the most simple – the world’s largest collection of Ju ware ceramic. This pottery – unadorned plates, vases, and bowls for the most part – perfected a glaze that was the goal of five dynasties: capturing the color and sense of the sky clearing after a rainstorm – ‘a piece of the Dutchman’s britches’, as a Maine sailor might say. The delicate but exuberant blue, with a subtle pink overglaze, has been highly valued ever since, but the technique was lost and is now being studied with modern methods. The simplicity of the shapes does not disguise their perfect proportions.

The color does not quite come through, but it’s close:

* The religious statuary, some from Tibet, was examplary though familiar from my studies of Buddhism. The Amitabha Buddha – the easygoing one from the south – held my attention, but the ever hurrying Jimmy was moving me on to the next room, the next event.

The next event, a few subway stops away, was the Lungshan Temple. Almost a caricature of Chinese architecture on the outside, with rearing multicolored dragons silhouetted above the arched roofline and carved ones twisting up the stone columns blackened by years of incense, the temple was a riot of color that stopped just short of being garish, or maybe stepped joyfully over that line. The wall on the street was chock-a-block with yellow paper lanterns. Inside the wall (but still outside the building proper) were altars aplenty, steles and wall carvings galore, collonades on all sides, and huge urns with sand for putting in incense to send your prayers up to heaven.

LUNGSHAN TEMPLE 艋舺龍山寺 (by Nokia 6230i)

The temple itself, which you can look into but not enter, is dedicated to a hundred gods, but the center of them all is Quan-Yin, the goddess of compassion and the Buddhist equivalent of the Virgin Mary. The comparison is apt, because these Buddhists acted for all the world like Catholics, muttering prayers and coutning their incense sticks like votive candles, with the same expectation and make-a-deal-with-God look in their faces. The smell of incense pervades everything, and there is a riot of flowers – both for sale, and then laid before the altars. Jesus might have turned over the tables of the money-changers here, since you had to buy anything you might want to make as an offering at inflated prices, but this is a lower-middle-class temple, with devout believers in pseudo-chic plastic boots and short skirts or lined faces and tight-fitting shoes, waving their incense and bowing, hands to foreheads, before adding their sticks to the hundreds already burning in the urns.

In the courtyard on the way out, I notice a long line of supplicants before a huge suspended white-and-flowered chinese lantern, maybe 10′ across. Mostly women, but a few men too, take their turn to stand under the fringe at the bottom, their heads almost inside. They pray for a few seconds, and then move ahead to make room for the next. I ask Jimmy what this is; he tells me that ‘lantern’ in Taiwanese is a homonym for ‘son’, so they are praying for a child, specifically a male child. Plus ça change…

I want to buy a Quan-Yin for my Quan, but they are tacky, and Jimmy is hurrying me along to the next thing:

A seafood all you can eat restaurant (I am not allowed to pay for anything, so I don’t know) that includes oysters, shrimp, sushi, mussels, snow crab – all really well done, no ‘bottom of the bait bucket’ stuff here – as well as chicken, lamb, a Chinese stab at Mexican food, a more successful (unfortunately) attempt at the American buffet (out of a can) salad bar, and all the alcohol – of every description – you can drink. We stick to the fresh fruit juice.

Finally Jimmy – bouncy, small, ectomorphic, 40-looks-20 – can relax. He proceeds to put away about twice as much as I can (and, having missed breakfast, I do not stint), and then insists on bringing in more dishes for me to try – including the pig’s blood (I again decline), and a turtle shell jell-o that I do try, but it tastes like Chinese medicine. We have been joined by a couple of his phsyiotherapy students, and talk turns, in this long and leisurely meal, to KMI training, Qi Gung and energy medicine, and the squeeze on physical medicine here.

In the national system, doctors get a fixed amount for any procedure, and any ancillary therapy comes out of that fee – so fewer and fewer surgeons are recommending physical therapy for their knee- or hip-replacements, and the money is drying up. They can go private, but the insurance companies squeeze them, and people are not used to paying for their own health care. Jimmy, a 7-years-trained MD, is training with a traditional Qi Gung master in Tui Na, both because he was helped by it, but also because he can charge for it independently.

And then the rush is on again, to the tallest building in the world – Taipei 101 ( Strikingly beautiful from the outside, on the inside it is a mall and offices, the view from the top similar to the Empire State or the WTC. What is startling is the elevator, that climbs or falls at an ear-popping 30’/sec, and the damper, a huge suspended ball in the center of the building near the top, designed to act as a righting pendulum in a tai-fun or an earthquake.

Riding back on the train, down a corridor of endless industrial landscape illuminated by the red sun falling into the smoky haze glinting off spikes of electrical towers, only made more barren by the occasional string of rice paddies and dry river beds, I contemplate poor Taiwan. It finally threw off the Japanese occupation at the end of WW2, only to have Chiang Kai-Sheck show up five years later, who, anti-communist that he appeared to be, ushered in an era of American investment and economic colonialism. (How many toys that I picked up in the 50’s five-and-dime in Damariscotta had ‘Made in Taiwan’ on them?) This, plus the spillover from the ‘Asian tiger’ economies, kept Taiwan growing furiously – the huge city of Taichung was simply not here 20 years ago, and now it stretches into the fumes as far as the eye can see – but now the industry, the money, and the energy is leaping over the strait to the mainland, and Taiwan teeters on the brink of a steep economic decline.


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