China Books

China: Museums by Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande and Antony White

China: Museums by Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande and Antony White

This article is by guest contributor Michael Rank.

New guide to China's museums ranges from archaeology to sex, tap water to the Cultural Revolution

The number of museums in China has soared in recent years but despite the treasures they contain many are little known. This book is an invaluable guide to 218 of China's finest museums; it makes no claim to be comprehensive since China boasted of 2,310 museums by 2008, according to an official count that excluded newly permitted private museums and new museums are opening all the time. The book spans a wide range from obvious candidates such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an to obscure attractions like the Beijing Tap Water Museum and the "quirky" Zhang Xiaoquan Scissors Museum in Hangzhou.

In a short but stimulating introduction the authors consider the purpose of Chinese museums and ask: "Is the government's purpose to use the artifacts in these venues to highlight the creation of China as a unified centralized state, in addition to showing their aesthetic value? Foreign visitors are often left with this impression." They also note that museums often exhibit replicas of originals, and these are often not marked as such, but this "is not necessarily meant as a deception, rather the object may be deemed too valuable to risk exposure. This situation is likely to change with the creation of more modern museums, with ever better methods of conservation and tighter security."

The book is organized in eight sections, starting with Beijing which includes 50 museums and ending, rather half-heartedly I couldn't help thinking, with Taiwan where only the National Palace Museum is considered worth a mention. Some of the lesser known museums in the capital include the "somewhat hard to find" China Railway Museum which includes the country's oldest steam locomotive and one donated by the U.N. to help with economic recovery after World War II, as well as Fahai Temple which has murals comparable to those at Dunhuang. And the Tap Water Museum is "absolutely worth a visit", the authors insist, one of its main features being a lovely circular pillared temple built as a shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin.

The book also covers some of China's more risqué museums such as the Ancient Chinese Sex Culture Museum, originally located in Shanghai but since banished and now housed in a former private girls' school built in the Qing dynasty in Tongli, Jiangsu. A large stone phallus takes center stage at the entrance, and the beautiful gardens are dotted with erotic sculptures including figures of the gods of wind and rain – "the connection being pleasant weather equates to a harmonious sexual life." The museum would not be complete without a display devoted to the male fetish for foot-binding as well as artifacts relating to eunuchs such as the porcelain penis used by them on girls in the imperial palace (the book, probably wisely, does not go into detail on this).

Equally sensitive in its own way is the Cultural Revolution Museum in Shantou, Guangdong, a private collection founded by a local former mayor. It is located in a park which was the scene of warring factions of Red Guards; many people died and were buried nearby. The museum seems to have managed to survive because it is far from the centre of power, but the book notes that "the government does not allow the museum to publicize itself and therefore it is not well known within the country. Those who visit cannot fail to be moved."

China has plenty of little known historical and archaeological museums to display the remarkable wealth of treasures that are continually being discovered. These include the Jinsha Archaeological Site Museum near Chengdu which displays a remarkable trove of gold, bronze, stone and ivory artifacts found in a five-square-km site in 2001 which have greatly helped increase our knowledge of the ancient Shu kingdom which declined around 600 BC.

One of the most remarkable sounding museums featured in the book is the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Dayi county, Sichuan, a private complex built by millionaire Fan Jianchuan at a cost of half a billion yuan and said to house more than eight million artifacts relating primarily to the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Japanese War. The book describes Fan as "a charismatic powerhouse of a man [who] is not a materialist gone mad; his museums are an expression of his wish to expose man's inhumanity to man, and to show that although the Japanese behaved savagely to the Chinese during the war, the Chinese did the same to their own people during the Cultural Revolution.

He wants us to remember, to learn, to honor the heroes of these struggles and to admit to the many shameful acts of the times." For political reasons the Cultural Revolution is referred to as the "Red Age" and the message is presented in a subtler fashion than that about the War against Japan for obvious reasons, the authors note. "To see the entire museum and leave time for meditation, you'll need at least two days," they warn.
This is an indispensable guide for any long-term resident or serious traveler in China and I can't recommend it highly enough. Inevitably, it's not exhaustive and I was slightly surprised to find no mention of the Lei Feng Museum in Fushun, Liaoning, a fitting memorial to the Maoist hero that proudly displays "his simple clothes, copies of his famous diary, photographs of his noble deeds and the socks he darned as his friends slept", according to the museum's website But maybe it will get a mention in the next edition.

The book is on sale at Beijing Bookworm and in Shanghai at Charterhouse Books.

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