The entrance makes the strongest impression — which is why you enter in the first place, of course. The mounting silk and the color of the wall are matched to the color of the paper, so it appears almost as if the words were the sole object there.
It’s huge, too: an cheap trick, perhaps, but it works:
This is where I got glued on the second visit:
Imporantly, it’s all very good. There isn’t one weak work here. I mean, how about this:
Or the rest of it, really:
Cong zhua bing: a Taiwanese art object
To an European arrival, Taiwan is a very exotic place and Taiwanese are a surprising people in many ways, but probably the most noticeable feature of the Taiwanese and one which strikes the visitor earliest is their dedication to – indeed, to some European minds – obsession with — food.
The most common greeting on the island is Chi baole mei? — Have you eaten? (And God forbid you should ever answer truthfully “No”, since your confession will be treated as an emergency requiring immediate remediation). Many, perhaps most, idiomatic expressions refer to eating — a solid job is a “steel rice bowl” (i.e. safe source of food), prurient interest is “eating tofu”, jealousy “eating vinegar”, suffering is “eating bitter”.
Life is entirely organized around the three main meals of the day – after 11:45 no business can be transacted anywhere as the whole island goes into a kind of high level emergency with absolutely everyone heading at high speed for the troughs. People eat or snack constantly, throughout the day and night. Food is available cheaply and instantly everywhere and around the clock: whole armies of outdoor cooks grill, steam, boil, and fry at every street intersection 24/7 making sure no one goes hungry unnecessarily. One of the most commonly listed hobbies is “going out to eat” (which may be going to a specific restaurant to eat something; or just wondering aimlessly through the night market and eating this and that along the way).
Food is constanlty discussed – one of the most common conversation fillers (the sort of remark which in Europe might be made about the weather) is “I feel like eating x”; but most food oriented conversation, and there is a lot of it, is on a very sophisticated level:
A: Yesterday I have eaten x and it was unlike any x I have ever had, because the cook did this and that.
B: Ah, yes, there is a place like that in y; it is very famous, they have been there for three generations; what they do is z.
C: Yes, yes. I have had something like that once, but if you eat it with w, it is especially good.
A: You can also make it with v, a completely different feeling.
Pre-prandial conversations (the complex conversation-negotiation regarding choice of food style and venue which takes place in any group who decides to lunch together prior to them setting out in a particular direction) are especially notable:
A: How about x?
B: No, no, I have had that yesterday. How about z instead?
C: Z is good, but let’s not go to y to eat z, because I went there about a week ago and have been really disappointed.
D: Yes, yes. The old owner has retired and his son has taken over and I don’t think he is as good. It tends to be a little oily and the spicing is off. But how about t, they do a very good z.
A: I find t a little too heavily flavored. It’s good if you want to eat more rice, but that makes for a very filling meal. What about v, they do a good z.
In some sense, to a Taiwanese, the whole world is a place one experiences through his mouth. Tourists returning from Europe – or Japan – will be asked about how their trip went and the first comment ouf of their mouths will be about how they did (or did not) enjoy the food. My four year old nephew’s response to his first sight of snow (on TV) was: is it tasty?
This explains sights like this:
No, these are not people lining up for a brand name sale; or to collect free gifts; or visa to the United States. These are people waiting to eat at famous establishments. (The first photo is in front of a Cantonese restaurant Ding Tai Fong in Hsinyi Road, the second at a cong zhua bing – shredded onion cake – stand in Yongkang Street, the third at Hei Tang Qin Wa, a black-pearl milk tea stand in Gongguan).
Now, take a look at these photos: this is a side street off Yong Kang Street;
every single shop sign you see in these photos — absolutely every one of them — is a place to eat. Both neighborhoods are flooded from early morning till very late at night by whole rivers of humanity out to “have fun” (i.e. to eat). Taiwanese beat all world statistics for consuming the largest number of calories per day of all nations on earth: 4000 calories per capita on average.
Why should this be so?
Partly, it is simply lack of prohibition. No religion in China prohibits or slights enjoyment of eating. On the contrary, popular wholistic theories of the world stress the importance of correct diet for personal well-being, social harmony and even — balancing of all forces of the universe. Daoists will tell you that correct diet will fix an aching belly, restlessness, joint pains, and excessive venerity. Chinese medicine practitioners’ first advice to their patients invariably concerns diet.
But there are special local factors: in contrast to the rest of China, throughout its history Taiwan has had low levels of literacy and a high abundance of food. Although today the Taiwanese are among the best educated nations on earth, the old habits remain: Taiwanese don’t really read for pleasure, or attend theater, or discuss philosophy, or practice calligraphy; they eat.
Which is a manifestation of a certain interesting fact of life: that nations do not develop all aspects of culture equally, but tend to focus on certain areas. This is in part because life – with its requirements for work and sleep — does not leave us enough time to do everything we would like to do; and in part because it is more rewarding to explore one kind – or at most several kinds — of activity in greater depth than many kinds of activity but only a little. Cultural activity in a particular area feeds on itself: the more people engage in x, the more interesting and rewarding and fun it is to engage in x, the more people engage in x, and so on. And the fewer people engage in other kinds of activity.
The illustrative contrast here is between the eating nation – Taiwan – and the dancing nation – Bali. Although Balinese like the food they eat and will never concede that it is in any way inferior, it is: it is remarkably unvaried, taste and texture-wise uninteresting, and generally indifferently cooked with few spices and generally inferior ingredients. Compared to the richness of food in Taiwan, Bali’s fare is almost incredibly poor. I believe the reason for this is that the Balinese dance – all Balinese dance, and all Balinese view and critique dances; and they do it with a passion, and very well. Dance, not eating, is where their time and energy is invested – and to very good purpose.
Taiwanese intense interest in food does not just prevent the Taiwanese from dancing or practicing calligraphy. It also prevents them from enjoying other pleasures in life. Leisurely walks in nature occupy a remarkably small part of Taiwanese consciousness; interest in sex is at best cursory; interior design is uniformly abysmal; on the national map of pursuits, dance appreciation scores big fat zero.
But they eat like almost no other nation on earth.
Now, one way of looking at art — the way this website promotes — is that art is a set of especially developed techniques used to manipulate human pleasure. In which case, cooking is an art, and consuming it is a matter of connoisseurship. In which case looking at the way cooking and eating operates in Taiwan is well worth the while of any aesthete.
Sheng Yuan Dojiang, on the corner of Hangzhou South Road and Aiguo East Road in Taipei, just across from the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial (sarcastically called by some — ever since the formerly Chiang Kai Shek International Airport was renamed Taoyuan Airport — The Taoyuan Memorial), is one of the very many places in Taipei serving… North Chinese breakfast.
The ubiquity of North Chinese breakfast establishments in this once South Chinese town is perhaps the most visible sign of Taipei’s specialness among all cities where Chinese live and eat: not only has Taiwan, then perhaps 10 million strong, received nearly 3 million Mainland Chinese in 1947 when the Nationalists, defeated by Mao, evacuated to the island; and is therefore one of the most “mixed” of all places in the world where the Chinese reside – food of all eighteen provinces of China is represented here; but it has also received proportionally more cooks than almost any other profession: for although the official histories of the revolution will tell you that rivers of blood of evil Chinese landowners were shed by Mao, the truth is that most landowners were not stupid enough to hang around for him to get them; unable to kill the landowners, Mao had to content themselves with killing whoever he could instead – and settled on the “hangers-on of the ruling class” — “natural allies of the enemy” — butlers, tailors, shoemakers, florists, jewelers, and — yes — cooks.
Which is why Taiwan, and especially Taipei, has ended up with nearly all the good chefs of China; and why mainland China has hardly any decent cooking left. Today, moneyed and eager to spend and represent themselves, mainland Chinese are paying astronomical sums to woo Tapei’s chefs back. But it will be a long time yet before anywhere in mainland China comes close to Taipei’s culinary excellence; and, barring another Mao, no place on earth will ever have its variety.
Add to this the fifty year occupation by the other food-fixated nation of Asia – Japan — which has left the island with the legacy of some of the best Japanese cooking in the world — Japanese gourmet tours regularly visit the island to try its famous, special variety of Japanese — and you will begin to understand why of all places in the world this provincial, out of the way, ugly-duckling of a city would just happen be one of the best places in the world to eat.
A few notes on the food:
Two principal aspects differentiate North Chinese from South Chinese cooking: a) North Chinese are wheat-eaters; and b) they bake. Here are two examples of baked North Chinese foods at Sheng Yuan:
1. xiake huang (“crab-cake yellow”), made with a kind of philo (layered) dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:
2. conghua bing, made with rolled yeast-dough and stuffed with green onions fried in duck fat:
The shop also serves xiaolongbao (“small steamer buns”), filled with meat and fat; the skin is supposed to be very soft (the bun feels like a loose bag); and during steaming the fat melts: when you bite the bun, the melted fat explodes in your mouth for an added sensation:
Some also swear by its shuijianbao (water fried buns). The term jian describes a cooking technique whereby the food is placed on a lightly oiled hot metal surface and allowed to sear on one side only. Shuijian describes an aspect of the same cooking technique: food is placed in a deep skillet, a little water is added and the skillet it heated until the water first boils and then eventually evaporates (thereby steaming the food); at which point oil is added to the pot to produce food which is partly boiled, partly steamed but which has a crispy-fried bottom:
Both the xiaolongbao and the shuijianbao illustrate Chinese interest in food texture: good food should not merely taste good; it should also feel interesting in the mouth — a variation of chewy and crunchy, for instance, is better than just chewy or just crunchy.
Sheng Yuan is a very busy place. It serves breakfast from 6.00 till 12.00 or until food runs out (usually a little before noon). It is always busy, but busier on weekends than it is on weekdays — a sign of its having become a destination in its own right (rather than just a functional convenience). On weekends, people come here from outside of the city to eat and it has recently been featured in Japanese gourmet guidebooks. Today, Japanese food tourists, arriving early Saturday morning, will take a taxi directly to Sheng Yuan to start a day of sight… -eating.
Chiang Kai Shek, a.k.a. Zhong Zheng, the fairly brutal authoritarian generalissimo of Nationalist China, defeated by Mao’s communists, fled to Taiwan where he set up for himself the usual personality cult. The Chiang Dynasty was deposed in late 80’s and Taiwan is today a vibrant democracy, but the Zhong Zheng Memorial, featuring a monumental statue of The Boss complete with daily change of guard, remains. The Airport, located near the town of Taoyuan, was once named after the generalissimo, but, in a sign of changing times, was renamed after the town which it disfigures. No friends of the generalissimo hope the Memorial will likewise one day be renamed.
[A show and tell]
The National Palace Museum in Taipei was built to house the art collection of the Emperors of China. This collection was carried off from Beijing by Chiang Kai Shek in 1947 when he fled from the mainland before the advancing communist armies. It was subsequently housed in a nuclear bomb shelter in deep shafts mined into the side of the mountain to prevent it being damaged in any Chinese attempted takeover of Taiwan.
Chinese art plays a special role in the China-Taiwan conflict. Chinese definition of China is not genetic but cultural: one is never born Chinese; one becomes Chinese by absorbing Chinese culture — one becomes cultured, or, in a Chinese expression, “cooked through”. For millenia China was threatened by northern barbarians who sometimes conquered her. China remained Chinese in the face of her conflict with uncultured barbarians by assiduously preserving and maintaining her culture; and, at times, by educating her barbarian conquerors into her cultural ways. The Chinese government’s function has always been to preserve and maintain culture (since its job is to protect the people’s livelihood and culture makes for a livable state); and a Chinese government is only legitimate to the extent that it preserves and maintains culture. Seizing the cultural treasures of China is a route to legitimacy; destroying them, as communists did during the Cultural Revolution, destroyslegitimacy. One could say, perhaps, that if the contents of the National Palace Museum were to be destroyed, China would cease to exist.
The collection, assembled over millenia, is vast: the museum features a small permanent collection and rotating displays changed every few weeks. On a strict rotation schedule, it would take fourteen years to show the entire collection. But some works are so precious (imagine fifth century AD ink and paper paintings) that they are hardly ever put on show.
When I lived here, I visited the museum every week in order to make sure that I miss nothing. And whenever I return, I make sure to go back there again. Every time I visit I leave deeply moved by something, usually something new. On my visit today I came across three new items never before seen.
1. A new (for me) painting by my personal hero, Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty, fifteenth century) — a long (11 meters) horizontal scroll called Guan Shan Ji Xue — “Mountain Passes in Gathering Snow”:
The size of the reproduction does no justice to the incredible detail of the painting (even though the scroll is only about 3 x larger than the reproduction): trees have detailed bark; empty surfaces (water and sky) are covered with an irregular, scored ink wash which suggests falling snow; in places, huts buried in show are conveyed with a combination of two thin strokes of the brush and a kind of brightening of the underlying wash; the figure of the lonely traveler in a red jacket on a black ass — which appears every foot or so as you view the scroll from right to left and eventually, about the middle of it, comes home (he is seen sitting in an open window) can barely be made out, while in the original it jumps at the eye like a raspberry in cream; above all, with the reproduction you cannot do what you can do in the museum: step about 5 feet back from the scroll and let your eye wonder over the undulating landscape: as you roll your eyes from right to left and then back again the effect is strangely musical: it is like gliding your gaze over a musical score: the peaks and valleys rise and fall rhythmically, with a slight, shimmering rubato.
You can see the full reproduction of the scroll here.
2. A vertical scroll which I had never seen by one of the greatest painters of the Song Dynasty (tenth century), Ma Yuan, entitled Xue Jing — Snow Landscape. Again, the reproduction (at the top of this post) fails: the painting is monumental – two and a half meters tall – and painted in fantastically powerful, confident, angular strokes, as if chiseled in ice and crystal. Yet, the mood it conveys is the opposite of hard: it uses an air perspective to suggest gentle mist in the air – a just above zero temperature and wet, melting snow. I kept returning to stand before Snow Landscape; and whenever I managed to peel myself off, reluctantly, to look at other paintings, or calligraphy, I could feel – my inner ear could hear – its tiny but insistent voice calling me back. I would return and stand before it again, glued to the glass, filled with intense longing. As Buddha would say, desire enters through the eye, but not consummation. Experience of rapture of art is a pointless stoking of suffering (i.e. unfulfilled desire) with no prospect of satisfaction; and museums are the worst place in the world for it of all: they close. See it above (at the top of this post) or here.
3. There was also a long fifteenth century scroll illustrating a second century BC poem about a Han Emperor’s hunting preserve (“Shangling Park”), a nice enough work, but to my mind fairly unremarkable — except perhaps for the fact that its painter had begun his career as a lacquerer, a fact clearly seen in the way he paints with sharply defined detail: in his painting even clouds and waves on the water have clear sharp edges; with – and this is the point — a very beautifully calligraphed text of the poem attached as a colophon. The calligraphy is fanciful: the same character is written in a number of different ways – especially when text calls for repeats — and some characters appear to be the writer’s own invention (look for one that looks like Macdonald’s Golden Arch) – which works when its meaning can be guessed from the context.
You can see the whole thing, painting and colophons, here.
4. Finally, I came upon an old friend, Xi Shan Mu Xue, “Snow at Dusk over mountains and streams”, by an anonymous Song Dynasty (tenth century) painter which I had first seen (and spend hours viewing on my knees) during the Da Guan show back in 2008. It had then occasioned the same kind of searing longing which Snow Landscape occasioned now; I knew to approach it gingerly. I was delighted to see it, but my desire remained focused on its rival and the old passion was not reawakened — I walked away without a heartbreak. I have sung the praises of this painting elsewhere; here suffice it to say: note the details of the fog in the middle of the painting – how the landscape incredibly, imperceptibly slips into and out of it.
Note how to the left, in the dense fog below the group of houses in the valley, a darker spot can be made out. What is it? Is it a stain – the painting is more than a thousand years old, its surface is uniformly darkened and may be discolored in places – or is that a clump of trees slinking in the fog? Much Chinese and Japanese ink painting employs this kind of suggestion: is there something there? Am I really making it out or is my mind playing tricks on me?
And while on the subject of Ma Yuan, it is never wrong to mention (and show) my favorite painting by him (favorite, that is, until I saw the Snow Landscape) – The Evening Banquet. Note how unevenly the dusk falls: quickly on the ground, more slowly up above, where the sky remains luminous and gradually fading for a quarter of an hour after sunset. Down at the bottom, in the darkness of the pavilion, someone is lighting a lamp.
Incidentally: all of these reproductions are tiny; in searching for a good one, I came across this, and it is worth seeing: it is an up-to-scale reproduction (my guess is that its scale is about 1:2) of a small section of a large vertical painting like most others several meters high. This tiny fragment gives you a sense of the texture of detail in these paintings: an important part of painting appreciation – East and West – is looking at the texture, at the individual strokes of the pen, at the ripples of paint and how it interacts with the underlying texture of the fabric; stepping back to see the overall impression, then coming back up close, nose nearly nudging the painting, looking at the details.
Xia Guo-Xian, b. 1951, neither mounts his calligraphy nor hangs it as dramatically as Yang Jianming. He also practices a narrower range of styles — it is mostly “grass” — but it is damn good grass with plenty of wet/dry contrast and a very graceful deviation in his verticals. On show at the same Chiang Kai Shek Memorial.