Monday, June 18, 2012

2012 Chinese Language Study in Taiwan Fellow--Around Taipei

My name is Kyle Churchman and I am rising senior at the Elliott School majoring in International Affairs and Chinese. I am currently in Taiwan studying Chinese with the support of the Sigur Center’s grant for Chinese language study in Taiwan, and look forward to sharing some of my experiences this summer on this blog! I hope that whoever reads my posts will find them interesting and informative. I also want to thank the Sigur Center at the onset for giving me this opportunity to travel to and study in Taiwan this summer.
In this blog post, I thought I would write about some of my various experiences so far in Taipei. In the three weeks that I have been here so far, I have already traveled to many of Taipei’s famous cultural and historical sites, and would like to describe some of the places that I thought were the most interesting.
Within my first week of arriving in Taiwan, I visited Taipei’s National Palace Museum—considered by many to be the finest museum on Chinese civilization in the world. Thanks to Chiang Kai-shek and his fellow retreating Nationalists, many of the museum’s priceless artifacts were shipped to Taiwan during the last days of the Chinese Civil War, where they more likely than not escaped destruction under Mao’s turbulent Cultural Revolution. The museum itself is not that big, and most of the exhibitions change every three months due to the museum’s limited capacity. Nevertheless, the museum’s most famous artifacts have permanent, year-round exhibits, and I was awestruck by two such exhibits: the early Qing Dynasty (mid-1700s) Carved Olive Stone Boat, and the late Qing (late 1800s) Jadeite Cabbage. Before coming to Taiwan, I had already seen pictures of the Carved Olive Stone Boat in Professor Chaves’ Classical Chinese class, as the ancient three hundred character Chinese poem we had been studying in his class is carved on the bottom of this tiny, boat-shaped olive pit. That’s right, I said olive pit. Looking through the magnifying glass inside the glass of the boat’s exhibit, I was awestruck at the extent of the detail of the eight men sitting inside this tiny boat—you can clearly make out their facial features and clothing style! My other favorite piece at the museum was the late-Qing Jadeite Cabbage. The artist took a one-half white and one-half green slab of jade and transformed it into the shape of a cabbage, with the white and green parts constituting the stalk and the leaves respectively. Originally considered an imperfect piece of white-green jade with blotches and cracks, the artist incorporated these imperfections to replicate the veins in the cabbage’s stalk and leaves. The leaves of the cabbage peel back in different shades of green; and, if you look closely, there is a katydid and locust carved into the top of the cabbage’s dark green leaves. Like the olive-pit boat, the exquisite craftsmanship put into this jade piece left me awe-struck, although it was a challenge to appropriately admire these pieces given the huge droves of Mainland tourists throughout the museum that made it difficult to view the pieces!
Moving from the ancient to the modern, I visited Taipei 101—Taipei’s tallest building—about a week ago. With 101 floors (an auspicious number in the Chinese culture), it was the world’s tallest building from the time of its completion in 2004 until 2010 when Dubai’s Burj Khalifa took the title. Situated in eastern Taipei’s bustling Xinyi district, Taipei 101 dominates Taipei’s skyline: the next tallest skyscraper seems to be only half its size. Despite no longer being the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101 does have the world’s fastest elevators. It only takes 37 seconds to get from the ground floor to the observation deck on the 89th floor. Looking out from the observation deck, one can see all of greater Taipei as well as the Pacific Ocean in the distance. If it is not too windy, you can also go to the outside observation deck on the 90th floor for a truly hair-razing experience. Despite the high guardrails, I was a little nervous at first to get too close to the ledge because there seemed to be 15-20 mph higher-altitude winds blowing off the sides of the building. I also saw Taipei 101’s mass tuned damper—a massive metal ball connected to hydraulic pumps in the center of the 88th floor. This damper reduces 40% of the building’s sway during earthquakes and typhoons—two natural phenomena quite common in this part of the world. I have been in Taiwan for only three weeks now and have already experienced three earthquakes and one minor typhoon!
Another interesting historical attraction in Taipei that I recently visited is the Presidential Office building, which serves as the office for Taiwan’s president and vice-president. Built in the early 1900s as the office for Japan’s governor-general (Taiwan was a Japanese colony between 1895 and 1945), the Presidential Office exhibits Japanese colonial architecture: it is painted red (for the red sun in the Japanese flag), and there are two courtyards in the middle of the building separated by a wall. Looking from above, these two courtyards give the building a shape. The architects purposely made the building this way because in Kanji Japanese (as well as Chinese), the character means “Japan.” I found it fascinating that Taiwan transformed this building into their Presidential Office building instead of demolishing it like South Korea did to their Japanese governor-general’s office in Seoul. Unlike other countries in Asia such as South Korea and China, which hold considerable resentment towards Japan for its behavior during World War II, people in Taiwan hold Japan in high regard. I think this is because Japan developed Taiwan’s economy and infrastructure when it governed the island, and because of its successful efforts to “Japanize” Taiwanese people, causing many Taiwanese to identify themselves with Japan and Japanese culture. I found it interesting that many elderly Taiwanese people today can still speak Japanese—the language of instruction in Taiwanese schools during Japanese rule.
I will be visiting Tainan—the former capital and current cultural heart of Taiwan—this coming weekend and will be sure to write about my experiences there in my next blog post. Thanks for reading!
Kyle Churchman
2013 BA International Affairs and Chinese
Elliott School of International Affairs

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