Thursday, August 04, 2011

Visiting the National Museum of China

Please bear with me as I type up the posts I wrote by hand during the long stretches of offline time in China. I already won't post again about the Chinese Northeast for a while.

The New York Times wrote in April about the newly-reopened National Museum of China and its many difficulties, namely that of trying to have a world-class museum in a country where many topics are off-limits, up to and including that country's history.

Having read about it beforehand and the weather in Beijing being 35 degrees, it was natural to spend most of a day at the museum. I wasn't alone: there was no shortage of people sitting around in the lobby of the museum. Like many other public places in China, the part that was free was crowded with hundreds of people, but the part where you had to pay (a cafe with nice chairs) had only about eight people, most of them Westerners.

What had struck me about the building the previous day was its architecture. It looks like a North Korean monument: massive to the point of making anyone in front of it feel like an ant, concrete, and firmly in the socialist style. The throwback style of architecture is definitely in keeping with China's recent Communist Party revival movement.

In the searing heat, I was dismayed to see that there was a line of several hundred people and it was moving slowly. When I got to the front, I saw that the two windows I'd been seeing didn't sell tickets, they were responsible for taking baggage that was too big to take inside.

The ticket window itself was a room with the doors opened. In the doorway was a table with a single man sitting at it. He was handing out tickets to a crowd that had lined up but instantly disintegrated into a mob. The tickets were being handed out as fast as they could be printed, employees behind him were feeding them to him like ammunition for a machine gun.

Some people showed ID but he didn't even glance at them, though my ticket says that admission is only with valid ID. I didn't have my passport since, well, there's no need to take your passport to a museum, so it worked out well. Clearly, the museum was not off to a great start if this was the sort of absurd, inefficient way it handled something as simple as entry.

The museum itself is something of an embarrassment to one of the world's greatest civilizations, mostly due to the fact that it's very much an initiative guided by the highest levels of the Communist Party, but in part because many important artifacts were taken by the Guomintang to Taiwan at the end of the Chinese civil war. Nevertheless, I would guess that maybe twenty or thirty percent of the available space is empty.

The central hall is a collection of paintings depicting various scenes from China's communist revolution and the anti-Japanese resistance, with descriptions only in Chinese. The upper floors have an exhibit on Chinese pottery, described only in Chinese, and Buddhist sculptures, this time with English accompanying the Chinese.

There are three foreign exhibits at the museum which I didn't check out because of a lack of interest. It's worth noting that they're relatively innocuous, uncontroversial and dull. Enlightenment art is in fact controversial for the party, which is why it was carefully arranged to avoid references to troublesome things like human rights.

The best part of the museum, ironically, was in the basement. It was a fascinating, thorough exhibit about Chinese history from prehistoric times up until the collapse of imperial China with the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911.

Signs were bilingual and the museum did a good job of stringing together that much history with unifying themes, though it was self-serving to a great extent. There were numerous references to China's ethnics (sic) and the contribution they had made in multi-ethnic Chinese states going back centuries, no doubt part of China's attempt to harmonize its present minorities (Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians and others) by casting them as always having been part of a multiethnic China.

Another interesting project was that any and all maps of China, at the museum and elsewhere, now depict China with the entirety of the South China Sea as part of China. This is a hotly-disputed claim that involves many countries, but China just went ahead and glossed it right over.

According to the New York Times article, there was a section on modern Chinese history, which was euphemistically titled "Road to Rejuvenation". I had a hard time finding it, variously ending up at a bathroom or an exhibit hall that had nothing in it as of yet. Considering that the museum is organized like an M.C. Escher sketch, I don't think it's gone, but it wouldn't surprise me if it has been removed for making references to the difficulties of implementing socialism, itself a nice way of mentioning the millions who starved to death during the Great Leap Forward.

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