A visit to the scrolls in Taiwan's palace museum

Everyone goes to visit the famous National Palace Museum in the suburbs of Taipei. And it is well that they should, for it houses the finest collection of Chinese art in the world.

The day my 10-year-old daughter and I went was a typical one. We passed groups of tourists clustered like chickens (some straying) around the mother hen (museum guide).

You could almost guess the nationality of the tourists before you heard the guide's voice. The Americans carried the complimentary flight-bag of their tour company, as well as cameras, purses, scarves, the Life Savers.

In the Spanish group were voluble talkers and exotic dressers with towering platform shoes on the ladies (who outnumbered the men, 10 to 1).

The Japanese group (where the men out- numbered the women 10 to 1) stuck together, craned their necks to hear every word, and all (except the women) dressed in dark business suits.

The Germans (who seemed to be bigger than everybody else in every dimension) also hung on the guide's every word, took notes, and carried elaborate shoulder bags.

Then, of course, there was wave upon wave of Chinese schoolchildren in uniform, smiling shyly and saying, "Hello" to any Westerner regardless of nationality.

But we had not really come to watch the tourists. I wanted to know what a Ming vase looked like (and there were several acres of them to be looked at). Then we were impressed by the artistry of ancient bronzes forged long before the days of Moses. We noted that the brass lamps available in Taipei shops were modern replicas of early bronze vessels.

A roomful of ancient and not-so-ancient scepters was an unexpected treat. Chinese scepters have a distinctive curved shape with a flat disk on one end.Some were carved from boxwood, some from mother of pearl, coral, or ivory; others were formed from gold. They were decorated with precious stones and kingfisher feathers of a heavenly blue. High government officials were permitted to carry them.

And then we came to the paintings -- the true of goal of our visit that day. Chinese scrolls are to two types. There are large ones to be hung on the wall much as we in the West hang up a framed painting. Then there are the horizontal scrolls that are about as high as an illustration in a picture book, but may be many yards in length. Such scrolls are intended to be enjoyed as one enjoyes a novel, progressing from scene to scene as you unroll the scroll on the table before you.

Of course, the scrolls in the museum are not available to be handled, but several of them have been opened out in long cases under glass, and one can wander the length of the case, enjoying the scenes unrolled there.

My daughter and I lingered long over a spring scene. The precision of the brush work was truly amazing. In tiny detail the everyday life in a Chinese town of centuries ago was vividly recreated. We almost felt as if we had stepped into the scene.

A cast of thousands is on hand -- laden donkeys led by farmers bringing their goods to market, porters hurrying by with sedan chairs whose closed curtains hide some noble person or government official, barbers at work in their open-air shops.

On the river that winds through town, boats whose decks are alive with sailors are moving along, while on the riverbank patrons are sipping tea in a restaurant. Coolie laborers with heavy buckets hanging from poles across their shoulders trot through the milling throng.

A visiting juggler is entertaining the passersby, and far off in the distant fields, children are flying kites above the feathery fronds of young bamboo. At one end of the scroll is the elaborate gate leading to a nobleman's estate. Inside beyond the hubbub of the village street, is a quiet garden where elegant ladies wander.

The progression from one part of the scroll to the next is so subtle and continuous, one has to admire the skill of the artist. Imagine designing a composition one foot high and twenty fee long!

My daughter and I could have spent an hour admiring a single one of these unfurled treasures, but my painting teacher had suggested I take a look at the scrolls from the Sung Dynasty in particular, as that is the style of painting I am learning. The hanging scrolls are masterpieces all can enjoy even it totally ignorant of the subject. But I discovered a whole new dimension was added to my appreciation since I had been studying the same techniques these earlier artists had learned, 700 to 1,000 years before me.

Looking closely, I could see how the artist's brush strokes formed the feathery bamboo branches in the very was I had been taught. As we walked past the scrolls, I began to point out the artist's techniques to my daughter who had seen my own tentative efforts along these lines.

Take a look at those rugged cliffs. See what a nice job the artist did with the dry brush work. And the pine trees have the very same circle strokes to create the rough bark which I learned at my second lesson. The pine needle clusters look exactly like what O've attempted, though executed with so much more authority here.

I can really appreciate the far-distant mountains shrouded in mist. And look at the tiny figures wending their way through the scenery: see the robes? I learned that last week. Never paint the man's robe red unless he is a government official. You can paint his outer skirt white, but leave the underskirt that hangs below it blank paper. That indicates it is a thinner fabric. And the lady's hairdo: that upswept style indicates she's a married woman.

Look at the little boat next to the distant shore. It looks just like the one I painted in my autumn scene. And see the next scroll with the cherry blossoms. The artist used white paint mixed with red to make the blooms stand out. Now count those tiny birds flying in the sky. My teacher says you must always have an even number of birds so there won't be any lonely ones left over.

Perhaps a thousand years separated us from the man who had painted that scroll. Yet, as I traced his strokes across the surface I could understand a little how he felt as he lovingly coaxed the scenery out of nothing. His individual genius combined with years of disciplined training created a masterpeice. Countless generations have viewed it as a touchstone in their own struggle for mastery over the patient ink, the restless brush, and the waiting paper.

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