Brian Salter's Blogs:
Are There Any Antiques Left In This Antique City?

 

What's in a name? Would that which we call a rose by any other name smell as sweet?… to misquote the great Bard.

I was pondering this very thought the other day when surfing through the web, looking for ideas of what to do at the weekend. According to chinahighlights.com, “For a cultural tour of Beijing, Panjiayuan Antiques Market is a destination that you shouldn't miss! It is a great paradise for the life-size Chinese antiques, including Buddhist statues, Chinese jade, Chinese porcelains, Paintings, calligraphy. On weekend mornings you can get great prices bargaining with the vendors.”

Travelchina.com, visitbeijing.com, english.people.com.cn and admissions.cn all take up the theme. “It is a heaven for buying and appreciating antiques, crafts, collectibles and decorations. … Actually, Panjiayuan Flea Market has become one of the must-go attractions of Beijing for tourists from home or aboard (sic)” they all gush with identical verbage (is there anything which isn’t plagiarised or copy-n-pasted in China?).

Panjiayuan, I learn, is a place devoted to “antiques”. With its flea market, street sellers, and practically every second building devoted to the trade, you can’t move an inch without rubbing shoulders with “history”.

But wait a minute! The customary definition of antique requires that an item be at least 100 years old and in original, unaltered condition; which means if the majority of this stuff is antique, then I must be as old as Methusalah (no comments please!).

Maybe a safer description would be "vintage" – as used on eBay, which is taken to mean anything that looks dirty and worn, or might even be old, so long as you don't know anything about history …

But today the masses have been attracted to the area, due in no small part to the fact that CCTV is recording an antiques road show; and literally hundreds of people are queuing up with their precious boxes of bric-a-brac no doubt hoping they might have discovered some amazing artefact in their attics.

Across the road from CCTV lies one of the buildings of Beijing Antique City, which is the city’s largest antiques trade centre, with more than 600 companies crammed inside.

Here, there may well even be the occasional antique here …possibly. But a number of different stalls have the same “unique” objects on display. What an amazing coincidence is that! And the asking price for an identical item I saw being sold in Hong Kong for HK$120 (¥96) just last year is going for a mere ¥800 here.

Antique or not, some of the objets d’art are rather stunning – like these coral pink parrots…

…or these roaring tigers (and followers of this blog will know I am very much into tigers!).

You’re after a clock or three? No problem!

And ever mindful of health and safety, the management of this centre has every eventuality catered for..

Given the sorry state of my bank balance, I head off for pastures new and soon find myself in “an unmissable antiques street in Beijing, where you can also get a great history lesson through strolling around” – if chinahighlights.com is to be believed.

Liulichang got its name from a renowned coloured glaze factory (琉璃厂) during the Ming dynasty that made glazed tiles for the palaces, temples and residences of officials. Most glazed structural components of the Ming halls and palaces were produced here.

According to china.org.cn, ciof.cn, sinowaytravel.com, dreams-trip.com, fcs-fusion.com, stmtour.com, beijingpage.com and a host of other copy-n-paste sites, Liulichang was a favourite haunt for scholars, painters and calligraphers that gathered there to write, compile and purchase books, as well as to paint and compose poetry. By the Kangxi period (1661-1722), Liulichang had become a flourishing cultural centre.

Nowadays, its whole raison d’être is to pander to the demands of camera-wielding tourists who want to pick up a souvenir or two to take to the folks back home. But having said that, it is a pretty place.

On the left hand side as you enter the eastern street is an entire courtyard filled with little shops.

It’s like a quiet oasis, with the noise of Beijing’s hustle and bustle outside deliciously missing.

Its little shops contain everything from mass produced Mao memorabilia…

… to cute wall hangings.

The main street itself is a mixture of state-run and privately owned shops as well as traditional teahouses and wine shops that are well geared up to try to part the tourists from their cash.

At the western end of the eastern street there are loads of art brush shops, and I can only wonder how many people in search of a brush would come here to buy one. Most artists would probably go to the real art shops in the Dongsi area, I suspect.

Ah. My musing is answered by a notice in one of the aforementioned shops, which also just happens to accept Visa and American Express – not something that is really that common in China.

Lest the unwary traveller has come across this street by mistake, there are other helpful signs around the place to put the (mainly American) tourists at their ease!

Crossing over to the western end of the street, which has much fewer tourists than its eastern counterpart, they seem to take themselves much more seriously, it would appear.

Some of the buildings have pretty carved motifs on their frontages, though these look anything but old.

A street calligrapher seems to be doing a roaring trade even though, or possibly because, most of the tourists confine themselves to the more-touristy eastern street.

You get the feeling that people here are quite passionate in their beliefs. For instance, I wasn’t aware that there is much of a ‘problem’ in Beijing with regard being served dog or cat meat in restaurants; but obviously others vehemently disagree with my preconceived ideas!

Mind you, I did see this sign in an Olympic Park eatery not that long ago…

But certainly there are no dog meat restaurants around here (that I can find at any rate), so I head off back towards the station, when my eyes fall on a statue blending incongruously into a grey brick wall.

A plaque explains all: Commemoration of Chinese Movies' 100th Anniversary, it reads. Filmed at Feng Tai Studio which located in Liu Li Chang in 1905, Peking Opera segment Ding Jun Shan is the first silent movie in China's history. Acted by TanXin Pei, the movie was first show in Da Guan Lou Cinema and lasted for only 6 minutes since which it has been 100 years now. (sic)

I do some homework. It appears that The Battle of Dingjunshan was a 1905 Chinese film directed by Ren Jingfeng and was made by Beijing's Fengtai Photography. It was based on an episode in Luo Guanzhong's historical novel ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ and consisted of a recording of a Peking Opera performance of the Battle of Mount Dingjun. The only print was destroyed in a fire in the late 1940s.

Now there’s an interesting thought. It was a silent movie which featured Peking Opera? I know many people who might think that is the best way to appreciate this art form (although I have actually rather come to like it, I have to admit, and regularly switch across to CCTV’s Peking Opera channel).

Before I reach the station I feel a call of nature and, holding my breath – as one is forced to do in such places – I pop into the local pissoir, as the French tend to call them. Immediately I see another candidate for my best Chinglish poster in Beijing contest.

Hey, it’s even worth popping out, and taking another large breath of (polluted) air before popping back inside to click the camera shutter. I sometimes wonder what the locals make of these weird laowais!

 

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