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As our English-speaking tour guide at the National Palace Museum, a nice docent who introduced herself as Rosalyn, walked our motley crew of 12 I-have-no-idea-how-to-read-Chinese tourists up three flights of stairs, she warned us that the lines to the museum’s most prized possession could be long, so if we could please cultivate a sense of patience, that would be great. She wouldn’t tell us any more than we were about to see the “Mona Lisa of the East” because she wanted our experience to be a wonderful surprise.
The lines, as she predicted, were long–but instead of resembling a mob scene with cameras flashing, people complaining about the wait, and elbows and arms all around (The Louvre, anyone?), the lines were, well, pleasant. Three nice, orderly lines of polite Taiwanese people, waiting patiently, arms by their sides, smiles on their faces. Two female docents timed each group’s stay in the special room and when the group’s time was up, the ladies politely asked each group to continue moving, which, no one seemed to have a problem doing. Like so much in Taiwan, this was the most pleasant line experience I could have ever imagined.
As we waited, I thought about my visit to the Mona Lisa of the West, which is, yes, the actual Mona Lisa. The lines, as you might imagine, weren’t really lines at all, but rather mobs of people pushing and shoving their way toward this Western masterpiece, snapping their cameras furiously and getting visibly frustrated when they couldn’t see over some tall person who happened to step in their way. People were sweaty, angry, and frustrated, impatiently counting down the seconds until they could get their own few moments with that seductive smile. And when they finally did push their way to the front of the line, most people didn’t even look at Da Vinci’s masterpiece–all they wanted to do was snap as many photos as they possibly could before being shoved out of the way again.The line was an obstacle–not part of the process–and the experience itself was more of a “hey-I’ve-seen-the-Mona-Lisa” documentary than a genuine moment with a masterpiece.
This was certainly not the case at the National Palace Museum (and I admit, having experienced both, I highly prefer the latter here). As the line moved forward, I started wondering: What could China and Taiwan’s most prized art possession be? A painting by an emperor? A stone carving of a famous person? An ancient artifact from the first empire? Rosalyn teased us with facts about it without revealing its true nature: this is our nation’s most prized possession, she said. It is seductive, it is an allegory for the relationship between man and nature, it is a metaphor for female purity, it is fertility, abundance, sexuality, sensuality, ancestral, delicate, beautiful.
So what could this thing actually be?
Our turn for the room came, and I saw it, propped up on a wooden easel in a glass box in the center of the room. The Mona Lisa’s eastern counterpart is slightly more unusual than a cross-dressed self-portrait: it is a teeny tiny carving of a piece of cabbage with a bug on it.
Now, I’m all for cabbage–toss some on my salad anytime!–but as I stood there, looking at this delicately carved precious piece of semi-fine stone with the softly ruffled leaves, the smooth lines down the body of the vegetable, the cracks and imperfections used to emphasize the veins in the stalks and leaves, the grasshopper carved right out of a leaf, I couldn’t help but realize just how foreign I actually am here. Weird portraits by strange men? No problem. Replication of a vegetable? I’m definitely new to this.