Taiwan’s most famous museum is the National Palace Museum (NPM), which houses over a thousand years’ worth of Chinese imperial treasures. Located in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, the NPM only features Chinese exhibits*, not Taiwanese. In order to make its vast holdings more accessible to the nation, Taiwan opened a southern branch of the NPM in Chiayi County in 2015.
However, the Southern Branch of the NPM takes a different approach by showcasing Asian and Taiwanese exhibits, besides Chinese imperial artifacts. It is probably unique among Taiwan museums for this pan-Asian focus, which I find appealing and admirable.
As such, the Southern Branch features a diverse collection including Indian, Japanese and Thai artifacts; Chinese Buddhist scrolls; Asian jade, and a fantastic collection of Taiwanese indigenous textiles (this is a temporary exhibition involving several Taiwan museums). At the time I visited, there was also a temporary exhibition of Japanese porcelain. The museum also has an exhibition on Chiayi, which is fitting, though the main feature is a movie about Chiayi’s past, and the actual artifacts are sparse. All the exhibits are displayed in large, spacious halls which also make it different from most Taiwanese museums.
The Southern Branch building is also very fascinating. Designed by Taiwanese architect Kris Yao, who also designed the Lanyang Museum, the Southern Branch is a sleek, curved black museum that lies along a small lake. From afar, it looks a little strange but the closer you get to it, the more appealing it is. The museum consists of two curved sections, one glass and one that is all-black and windowless along its sides, that come together at both ends. After you visit the museum, you can walk along the adjacent lake and enjoy the scenery.
The museum is in a rural area, but close to Chiayi’s high-speed station. It took me a long time to get there since I took a train from Tainan to Chiayi train station, which is actually in Chiayi City. I saw a sign saying there was a shuttle bus, but none of the train station staff knew anything about it, so I took a bus from the train station to the high-speed station, then took another bus to the museum. I did the same thing in reverse when returning to Tainan.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the original NPM because I find all those imperial treasures boring. However, I definitely like the Southern Branch and I hope it continues to expand its collection.
How to get there: Take the high-speed train to Chiayi high-speed station, which is near the museum, and then a bus. If you are in Chiayi City, take a bus to the high-speed station, then transfer to a bus to the museum. There is a direct bus from Chiayi City to the museum but it hardly runs.
- A little history lesson is in order to understand why the NPM holds Chinese treasures. These were brought over to Taiwan in the late 1940s by Chiang Kai-shek, the then-leader of China, as his KMT regime were losing the civil war to the Communists. This was a form of safekeeping as Chiang probably thought he could return to China at a later time and restore his rule. This never happened as the Communists, under Mao Tse-tung, established firm control of China, which lasts to this day, while Chiang ruled Taiwan.
However, the good thing about Chiang having brought the treasures to Taiwan is that this saved them from being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China, when Communist cadres, under Mao’s orders, looted and wrecked countless Chinese historical buildings and artifacts nationwide in an attempt to wipe out traditional Chinese culture. Whether these artifacts still deserve to be held in Taiwan nowadays is another question, but Chinese do owe Taiwan a form of gratitude for keeping them intact and in such good condition.
Spacious front hall from where you go up the stairs to the exhibits
Mahakala, a Buddhist and Hindu deity who acts as a guardian, from Tibet, 14th-15th century
Old photos of indigenous people
Clothes of the Paiwan, one of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples
Tibetan Buddhist scroll
Chinese Buddhist scrolls, 15th century
Jade exhibit hall
Japanese porcelain jars, 1730-1740
Leg coverings of the Puyuma, another of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples