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Monday, May 14, 2012

Chang Dai-ch'ien's Residence

Chang Dai-ch'ien 張大千 is arguably the most famous Chinese artist in the twentieth century. He was born in 1899 and lived in many parts of the world until 1977 when he moved to Taiwan and remained there until he died in 1983. Afterwards his family donated his residence to the nearby National Palace Museum as a memorial.

Chang's house is named 摩耶精舍 or Abode of Maya. While the residence is open to the public, the visit requires advance booking and the tour is limited to less than one hour. Recently my wife, Maria, booked a tour to take overseas guests to see the house. Since I have never been there before, I tagged along and was eager to see the home of this great artist, who is known not only for his art, but for his love of food and his exquisite taste.

The house is located in a gated residential neighborhood within walking distance of the National Palace Museum; Chang chose this location as it is the place where a stream splits into two. Our group of five people were greeted at the front door of the house by a tour guide, who started the tour at the front courtyard just inside the gate. The first thing to see was actually Chang's limo given to him by the government, which is parked in an open garage. We then proceeded to step inside to tour the two-story building, which was designed as a four-sided courtyard house.

The more public functions of the house are placed on the ground floor. The first room we visited was the dining room, which has a large round table and a few simple chairs. On one corner of the room is a small table with a large television on it. I suppose Chang was into watching television while taking his meals. A framed calligraphy of a menu for a dinner party is hung on one wall, except it is just a copy as the original is owned by a private collector. Next to the dining room is the parlor where Chang received his guests. The room consists mainly of large sofas, photographs of Chang with dignitaries, and some of the scholar rocks from Chang's extensive collection. This room is linked to Chang's large studio where he paints and teaches. A wax figure of Chang stands next to his large desk. The space is a bit awkward and Chang stands in front of a green fabric door that tour guide didn't know what it leads to. On the way to the small sitting room, we passed a wall with a collection of Chang's walking canes, which are just beautiful objects.

The small sitting room was where Chang's wife entertained her guests: a simple carpeted rectangular space with a few sofas and some more of Chang's scholar rocks on display.

The courtyard in the middle of the building is a bit messy and crowded with plants. The large outdoor garden is located behind the small sitting room. The garden is stretched out with varying levels and views of the hills on the east side and overlooks the split of the stream. This is also where Chang is buried. Chang also has a small birdhouse on one side as well as a hibachi grill. The tour ended with a visit to a cage on the second floor where a couple of monkeys reside. The monkeys are sort of like stage props; I am not sure if it is all that necessary. This was the extent of the tour as the rest of the house is closed to the public.

In short, Chang's house was a big disappointment. It is clear Chang's house is preserved as it was at the time of Chang's death. By now the whole place just feels a bit run down. It also doesn't help that all the paintings that are currently hung on the wall are copies of the originals. While the house may look like the way Chang has left it, the feel of the space is definitely not the same. Moreover, I was disappointed with the setup of the house. Chang didn't seem to have much interest in designing and decorating the house. The spaces are not very interesting. The garden at the back with the collection of rocks and bonsai trees is perhaps the nicest part of the house, yet there is very little link both spatially or visually to it from the various rooms of the building; Chang cared more about his garden probably because they serve as inspiration for his paintings. Overall it was just a very banal house. For someone like Chang, who carefully crafted his appearance, often with a traditional Chinese long robe, tall hat, and a sculpted walking cane, the house doesn't seem to quite fit the image. Perhaps Chang's interest lies only with the imaginary spaces in his art. As an artist, Chang has few peers and his paintings certainly rank as some of the bests in the history of Chinese art. In contrast, his residence is not really worth a visit.

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