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Taipei, Taiwan Today

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Photo: Zubin Shroff

Taiwan’s identity is deeply rooted in chinese culture. Almost 85 percent of the island’s modern population consists of migrants from the Chinese provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, and almost 75 percent speaks the Min-nan dialect of Fujianese. But as the example of the United States proves, settler populations eventually find their own ways of defining themselves, breaking with the mother country. Taiwanese self-perception has changed particularly swiftly over the past 12 years: according to a recent survey in the Economist, the number of those identifying themselves as Taiwanese has doubled to 41 percent, while those who see themselves as purely Chinese have dwindled to 6 percent of the population.

But it didn’t take me long to discover that many Chinese traditions—condemned as “feudal” and “bourgeois” in Communist China—never faded in Taiwan, and are actually experiencing a revival. Deprived of its traditions, China today is especially vulnerable to the most commercialized forms of pop culture: a Chinese version of American Idol called Super Girl, for example, draws record viewership. I found it heartening that one of the most popular television shows in Taiwan features a puppet theater called Budaixi, whose costumes and plots draw on ancient Chinese sources.

And if you are a sinophile, the best reason to visit Taipei is the National Palace Museum. With jade-green tiled roofs and yellow walls that loom dramatically out of a mountain valley north of downtown Taipei, it holds one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts and artwork in the world, including the famous Jade Cabbage—a piece of jade carved to resemble a head of cabbage—and a boat carved out of an olive pit. Much of the best Asian art resides in Western museums. But China, which was never fully conquered or occupied by a Western country, managed to hold on to much of its heritage, and a lot of it was carted away to Taiwan in 1949 by Chinese Nationalists fleeing the Communist army of Mao Tse-tung. Renovated in 2007, the National Palace Museum can lay claim to being the Louvre of Asia.

The tearoom at the museum is a replica of the Three Treasures room at the Forbidden City in Beijing, but when I arrived I found the restoration had left its once-spectacular carved and painted ceiling colored gray-brown. But then, Taipei doesn’t lack for teahouses—indeed, there is a new vogue for them among the young, who had previously preferred to hang out at Starbucks and other coffee shops. One afternoon, I walked from the busy and smoggy Xinsheng South Road into Taipei’s famous Wistaria teahouse—and into a world where time had been ordered to stand still.

Music from Chinese lutes floated through the room; sunlight streaming in from wood-framed windows and skylights and bamboo curtains created dappled patterns on the tatami mats. Green moss clung to the dark red-brick walls. In the small Japanese garden at the back, a spring bubbled quietly amid little ponds and stone tables.

The teahouse’s owner, Chow Yu, who resembles the wispy-bearded sage of Chinese landscape painting, performed a serving ritual, mixing teas and warming miniature pots and bowls with delicate and elegant gestures. Teahouses in imperial China, he explained, were places where the literati gathered. No other traditional culture venerates writers and intellectuals as much as the Chinese. Chow explained that he uses only the ceramic ware favored by the scholarly class in old China: Yixing, which best retains the flavor of tea.

But Wistaria is connected as much to Taiwan’s eventful modern history as to the classical past. Built in 1921, the two-story building was originally Chow’s family residence. “Many writers and intellectuals would gather here in the 1950’s to talk about art and politics,” he said. “It was dangerous, because Taiwan was under martial law and we could have been accused of sedition.” After Chow turned the building into the Wistaria in 1981, it became the favorite watering hole of intellectuals and politicians who participated in the movement for democracy in 1987.

Taiwan has moved on. Its democracy is now a raucous and unruly affair, with two main parties—the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), color-coded blue and green, respectively—that periodically assault each other with allegations of corruption and incompetence. But Wistaria remains popular among the city’s literati. Joining me for a light lunch of steamed vegetables and hot-and-sour soup that afternoon were Chen Hao, a television talk show host, and Yang Ze, an editor at the China Times, Taiwan’s leading daily newspaper.

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