All in the best possible taste?
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They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but although what some might consider to be in bad taste can still often raise a smile or two, surely no-one who passes the China House in the city of Tianjin, some 120 kilometres southeast of Beijing, can fail to be intrigued by what it's like inside.
China House (aka Porcelain House) is a "contemporary" museum of pottery and antiques. It is located in a historical colonial building – No. 72, Chifeng Road in Heping District; and even without taking a single step inside, you can see how different it is going to be from the outside.
I guess we are all curious at heart, and the urge to actually go in to this unusual museum became overwhelming to the point where I finally succumbed on my fourth visit to this lovely city.
The old five-storey French-style house, which covers some 3,000 square metres, was originally the home of a central finance minister in the late Qing dynasty, and was later converted into a bank in 1949, after the founding of the People's Republic of China. But later the building was left deserted, until porcelain collector Zhang Lianzhi bought it for RMB 1 million (US $145,000). He then spent the following four years turning it into the eyesore (or work of art, if you prefer) that it is today.
It is said that over 5,000 ancient vases, 4,000 plates and 400 million porcelain fragments have gone into the outside decoration of the house. Not for nothing is it known as ‘the most eye-catching building in Tianjin’, and of course, it is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, having finally opened its doors to the public in September 2007.
The courtyard wall is covered with around 3,000 porcelain vases, while the wall in front of the house is named the ‘peace wall’, and consists of 635 vases made during the Republic of China and the late Qing Dynasty.
In some ways the place reminds me of some of the famous Gaudi buildings that grace Barcelona – guaranteed to shock on first glance but which grow on you after a very short while. The house itself is decorated with some 400 million pieces of ancient porcelain, 16 thousand pieces of ancient chinaware, 300 white-marble carvings, 20 tons of crystal and agate and millions of pieces of ancient Chinese ceramic chips. Some of the fragments and vases go back to the Tang (AD 618-907) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
In fact, about 80 percent of the porcelain used comes from broken or damaged antiques, but Zhang mixed all the different fragments together and pasted them onto the walls in such a way as to conceal the damaged bits, so most of them look intact.
Zhang ensured that elements of Chinese ' culture' could be seen at every turn; and he seems to have taken a liking to creating loads of dragons entwining the exterior wall. Each dragon is more than 200 metres long and is pieced together from thousands of porcelain pieces. They are said to symbolize the power of ancient China, being one of the most dominant features of Chinese architecture.
Everyone is snapping away on their mobile phones, with people striking selfie poses as if there was no tomorrow. Inside the house it is very dark, making it difficult to see some of the more imaginative uses to which one can put a broken teacup.
There’s also loads of antique furniture, arranged as if in a junk yard sale. With the very dim lighting it’s difficult to see if it’s good stuff or if it is really just junk. My inclination is to the latter, though a group of loud-mouthed Americans wearing grotesquely chequered trousers covering their ample bottoms ooh’d and aah’d as if they had come across the meaning of life.
There are some nice things to see, however, such as porcelain mosaics of various different animals, scenery, and Chinese characters. The mosaic eagle is rather a handsome bird...
while the snub-nosed tiger is somewhat endearing, if perhaps a little anatomically challenged!
Some of the ceiling designs, too, I have to admit to finding quite nicely done…
Zhang Lianzhi, meanwhile, insists it is all done in the best possible taste. "The design is based on my understanding of antique porcelain and traditional Chinese culture,” he once explained. “The experience is like a child building his dream house with toy bricks. With such a large amount of porcelain pieces, all I needed was my imagination to create and explore."
Many would argue that used in this way, the antique artefacts have become worthless, though Zhang counters that antiques are not something that can only be conserved in storage houses, saying he is giving his collection a new lease of life by presenting them to the public. "I want to share my enthusiasm about the collection with many more people. For the past twenty years, I myself have found great fun in studying the stories and history behind the ceramics. It would be a pity and waste if these fabulous works of art were appreciated by myself only."
If you are wondering how this guy could afford to put together such a museum, it turns out that not only was he born into a wealthy family in Tianjin, but he also has a profitable Cantonese-style restaurant chain. He has been collecting antique porcelain for well over 20 years; and maybe he just ran out of space in which to store it all.
One of his latest acquisitions is a fully functional Land Rover covered with approximately 10,000 pieces of antique ceramics. It, too, is estimated to be worth around 1 million yuan; and although its owner is reluctant to put a price tag on China House, ‘experts’ (whoever they may be) have evaluated the museum to be worth at least 2 billion RMB (US$300 million).
The US blogsite Huffington Post has listed China House as one of the world's 15 most stunning museums; and rumours abound that even Bill Gates wanted to buy it but was refused.
Which all goes to show, I suppose, that there is no single definition of good taste, and that beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder.