The Mona Lisa of the East


Inside the National Palace Museum outside of Taipei, Rosalyn stops at the foot of the stairs. She’s done this a hundred times, and every time, she offers her tour group the same piece of advice. “The lines can be long,” she says, gesturing upstairs, “so if you could all please cultivate a sense of patience, that’d be great.” Despite the fact that this is the first time a museum docent has actually said what I imagine plenty of them wish they could have said, I am even more interested in the identity of this object Rosalyn has kept secret during our entire tour. We are at the culminating point of our very long 2 ½ hour tour of the museum, and I’m either ready to see this most prized possession or go eat a noodle bowl.

Yet I do what I can to cultivate a sense of patience. After all, since the museum’s inception in the 1960s, what we’re about to see has consistently been voted the most popular piece of art in the entire museum (keeping in mind, of course, that the museum has over 600,000 rotating pieces, entire collections of Chinese masterpieces which are hidden in top-secret caves scattered throughout the north part of the island). Reasons for its abiding popularity vary, but the polls always reveal the same sentiment: there is something unabashedly beloved about this object, the piece lovingly called the Mona Lisa of the East has never, ever faltered in its number one status.

The lines, as Rosalyn predicted, are 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 tourists, waiting patiently, arms by their sides, smiles on their faces. Two female docents limit each group’s stay in the special room by the sound of a bell, and when it rings, the ladies politely ask each group to continue moving, which, no one minds doing. Like so much in Taiwan, this is the most agreeable line experience I’ve ever waited in.

As we wait, I think about my visit to the Mona Lisa of the West, which is, yes, the actual Mona Lisa. The lines weren’t really lines at all, but rather throngs 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 that classic tall person who rudely stepped 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” claim to fame than a genuine moment with a masterpiece.

This was certainly not the case at the National Palace Museum. (I admit, now having experienced both, that I highly prefer the latter here). As the line surges forward, groups of curious tourists shuffling in and out as if on a highly-functioning conveyor belt, I begin to wonder: What could China and Taiwan’s most prized art possession be? A painting by an emperor’s hand? A stone head of a famous person? An ancient artifact from the first empire? A fantastic piece of stunning jewelry?

Actually, it is none of these things. Approaching the room, Rosalyn teases us with facts about it without revealing its true nature: 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, ancestry, delicacy, beauty.

So what could this thing actually be?

Our turn for the room came, and I see it, the little 7-inch long masterpiece propped up on a wooden easel in a glass box in the center of the room, track lighting illuminating it from both above and below. 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. Two bugs actually—a locust and katydid, perched delicately on the ruffles of the leaves at the blossoming of the cabbage’s leaves, their spindly legs emerging out of the leafy green tips.

After a few minutes of respectful silence, allowing for all sets of curious eyes to travel around the glass box, Rosalyn pipes up. A jade masterwork is typically flawless, she says, cut from a perfect stone without any visible variations of color. This piece, though, carved sometime in the 1800s, relishes in that imperfection, she tells us, the shape emerging from the color variants of white and green, the cracks and striations the inspiration for the vegetable. It is truly a masterful piece, as jade is about as hard to cut as garnets or rubies.

The piece, however, reflects something much deeper than simple aesthetic expertise (not that this leafy green vegetable, cut from an imperfect piece of stone, is not a curious and exceptionally beautiful object in itself, of course). Through the difficult journey of these objects, this museum literally houses the memory of the fall of imperial China and the last days of the Qing dynasty. But why the cabbage? Why not the delicately carved ivory ball of 17 interlocking layers over there on the second floor? The gorgeous bamboo curio boxes on the first floor? After all, hundreds of thousands of exquisite art objects from the imperial courts were clandestinely brought here in wooden crates by Chiang Kai-shek when he fled the communists in 1949. So why this vegetable, which is both anonymous and carved from a sub-par precious stone?

Rosalyn pauses. This isn’t the first time she’s been asked this question. She smiles, glances lovingly at this integral piece of her cultural heritage, and tells us one thing. “Because it is truly nature and human in unison,” she says. She then smiles and shrugs.

Now, I’m all for boy choy cabbage—toss some on my salad anytime!—but as I stand there, looking at this delicately carved precious piece of semi-fine stone with the softly ruffled leaves, the smooth lines trailing down the veined stalk, the cracks and imperfections used to emphasize the growth patterns in the leaves, the grasshopper carved right out of a leaf, I can’t help but realize just how much my perception of art skews Western, dictated by a history of looking at paintings, head busts, and Da Vincis.

Weird portraits by strange men? No problem.

Replication of a vegetable? I’m definitely new to this.

As I turn to leave, feeling a new appreciation for produce, I notice what’s in the next glass box, poised delicately on a pedestal: it is a preserved pork chop on a platter.


Guest post and photographs (except for the jade cabbage, which is taken from the National Palace Museum’s website) by Kristin Winet. Also, a special thanks to the Taiwan Tourism Board for sponsoring this trip to Taiwan.

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