A week is not enough to understand anything in depth but, in travel, it’s usually enough to form some impressions. Taipei? The language and the style is Chinese but most Taiwanese don’t think of themselves as Chinese. They are Taiwanese. But what is Taiwanese?
It’s hard to avoid comparisons with the other countries I’ve visited in recent months, but they give me a sense of what Taiwan is not. It’s not warm and fuzzy like Korea, or polite and precise like Japan. It’s not steeped in rich religious traditions like Sri Lanka or crazy rich Asians like Singapore.
What is it? From what little I can find to read, I know that Taiwan has a passion for national independence, at least partly because of its history of occupation and brutality by Europeans, the Chinese and the Japanese. That’s a start but only a start.
I get some superficial clues about walking around Taipei. It’s relaxed. No one seems to be in a hurry People wear flip flops and shorts, and they cross the streets against the light. It’s commercial — every block in the center is jammed with everything from one-burner food stands to giant malls. The city feels clean, even though most of the buildings are pretty funky. The public transportation is great. The parks are nice although mostly empty. In public, a lot of young people have their noses in their phones, even when they are walking across the street against the light.
Hoping for a little more education, I have visited a bunch of museums, which has been mostly futile. The Taiwan National Museum only has exhibits about science for kids. The Taiwan History Museum is closed for three years. The Palace Museum is almost impossible to navigate because it is SRO with Chinese tourists (who flock there because the museum has a vast collection of Chinese art and artifacts. I read most were stolen from mainland China by Chiang Kai Shek in 1948). I am skipping the Taiwan Fish Ball Museum.
But when I went to the Fine Arts Museum, a light bulb went off! The museum has a beautifully-curated and extensive exhibit of one of Taiwan’s modern artists, Yu Peng.
Yu Peng was all-things Taiwan. He played the Guzheng, a traditional Taiwanese instrument, and practiced Taiwanese martial arts. The main thing he learned from studying western art was his commitment to the artistic traditions of his own country. He died after refusing western medical treatment for a type of cancer he knew would kill him.
Yu Peng’s paintings feel very modern, but Yu Peng deployed Taiwanese artistic traditions, techniques and tools as the foundations for his work. He often painted with black ink, using old-fashioned brushes and ages-old brushstrokes. He often painted on scrolls. His work includes references to Taiwanese history, language, and culture — like Buddhism, and hanzi and the wild natural world.
Most of Yu Peng’s paintings are colorful narratives of people, landscapes and animals. They express both innocence and worldliness. They are serious but whimsical. The people seem at peace but they are a little mysterious! We need to interpret their stories, just like real life. (What about all the naked women he painted? They seem so relaxed — is Yu Peng telling us Taiwanese women have nothing to hide? They are comfortable with their sexuality? )
I think Yu Peng would say he painted the Taiwan he knows and wants us to know. His work makes me feel more connected to the Taiwanese community. So instead of photos of the somewhat anonymous city landscape in Taipei, I have posted only photos of Yu Peng’s paintings. I hope you like them too!