You’d think with the number of museums there are in Beijing, there would hardly be the need for yet another one showing off the history of the city as an imperial capital for hundreds of years. We have the National Museum at TianAnMen Square, after all; though in fairness that is a museum about the nation, and not just about the capital.
So, you see, you’d be wrong. OK, I had been in the northern capital for over two years before someone asked me what the Capital museum was like – and I had, shamefacedly, to admit I had never been there.
But such things are easily remedied, and a cold smoggy morning sees me taking the subway to Fuxingmen on Line 1.
The Capital Museum (首都博物馆) describes itself as a relatively new and important museum in Beijing’s central administrative and cultural district. The collection was originally housed in the Confucian Temple. Work started in 1953, but that museum was only opened to the public in 1981. In order to accommodate a larger collection, however, a new museum was built 20 years later and opened on May 18th, 2006.
Nowadays you’ll find it at 16 Fuxingmenwai Dajie – that’s the west extension of Chang'an Avenue (Beijing’s equivalent of London’s Oxford Street). Eight years ago it had an area of 24,800 square metres, with five floors above ground and two floors underground. But it seems that it simply can’t resist the urge to expand, and now as if by magic, the floor area has already reached 63,390 square metres.
It’s not the prettiest building, if one is completely honest (and my blog fans will know that I am well known for “calling a spade a bloody shovel”), but if you like steps, then you will immediately feel at home with the designer who, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to provide a few for you, before warning others to take care…
Thanks to the work of an anonymous graphic designer, we also discover that there are certain times of the year when we can all enjoy some shrubs and splodges of greenery, though there is not an awful lot of extra information you will get from the schematic prominently displayed outside, save for the fact that there is no shortage of public toilets inside.
Now, as usual, you can happily ignore what you read on the majority of Beijing’s copy-and-paste web sites. There is no fee to get in, and you don’t need to apply for permission in advance to visit! But what you do need is a form of ID – a passport, driving license, Mickey Mouse fan club card or whatever. On the other hand, if you are a laowai, the second best way of getting in is to talk English very fast and animatedly, and the 'lady' behind the desk will soon be waving you through unceremoniously.
If you are into various kinds of cultural relics collected extensively over the past few decades, then this is the place for you. Bronzes, porcelain ware, calligraphy works, paintings, coins, jade objects, seals, needlework, Buddhist statues and a plethora of other pieces of cultural relics (5,622 at the last count) are on show from the museum's 200,000-plus collection.
As is normal in China, the tourist blurb gushes forth, and will either have you going ‘Oh Wow!’ and reaching for your camera, or leave you with a heard-that-been-there-got-the-tee-shirt look on your harrowed visage.
The architectural design concept of the Capital Museum is a “Harmonious integration of past and present, history and modernism, art and nature; an architectural artwork integrating both classical and modern beauty. It is of distinct national characteristics on the one hand and obvious modern feeling on the other. The massive roof inherits its design from the roof overhang of Chinese traditional architectural style; the long stone curtain wall stands for the city wall in ancient China; the gradient of the square refers to the architectural style of dais construction in ancient time; a piece of Danbi (a massive piece of stone, carved with images of dragon, phoenix or clouds for gods to walk on) is imbedded in the ground in front of the north gate of the hall; a decorative archway from the Ming Dynasty is set in the hall; the leaning and projecting wall of the oval Bronze Exhibition Hall implies unearthing of ancient relics…” and blah blah blah <yawn>.
There are actually three separate buildings within the new building, being respectively a Rectangular Exhibition Hall, an Oval Exhibition Hall and what passes for an Office & Scientific Research Building. The central hall and an indoor bamboo courtyard stand between them. “An environment of both human and natural sentiment is therefore created by adopting natural light, blended with the decorative archway of Chinese style, sunken bamboo courtyard and rippling water…” – yeah, yeah, yeah….<yawn>.
We are told that the goal of the museum was to adopt new design concepts to break “traditional dull exhibition patterns (their words, not mine) and use modern exhibition technologies and methods to create a different exhibition style so as to give visitors a personal experience, to suit the tastes of both the refined and common people.”
I’m not sure which of those last categories I fit into, but suffice it to say that this place does actually suit the taste of this commonly-refined blogger.
The new venue cost some 1.23 billion yuan (US$147 million), and it is said that it can accommodate 2,000 visitors daily. But it’s cold and grismal outside, and I reckon there can’t be more than about a tenth of that number of people today.
With a floor area of over 60,000 square metres, the Capital Museum is second only to the National Museum in terms of size, and it is said that to see all the exhibitions should take up at least four or five hours.
I should perhaps at this point admit to the fact that I’m really not that much into exhibits of things that have been dug up after having been buried for thousands of years. But if, unlike me, old bronze work is your cup of tea, then you should head for the stairs p.d.q. and go to the fourth floor where there are 132 pieces and sets of bronzes on display, divided into two groups – those of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC - 771 BC) and the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (770BC-221BC).
Maybe Jade is more likely to float your boat? If so, you’ll find over 180 pieces showing its brief development. Many items on display were unearthed from noblemen's graves, and have rein-marks and emperors' poems carved on them.
Among all the exhibits, the imperial jade seal of Qian Long (the fourth emperor of the Qing Dynasty) draws the most attention. This white jade seal with a circularly carved dragon was made in 1791 for Qian Long's eightieth birthday. It was the emperor's private seal, and used to be stamped on the emperor's many famous calligraphic works and paintings.
If, like me, you are into bells, then perhaps the Yongzhong Chime Bells from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) unearthed from a tomb in Dahekou, Yicheng County, Linfen, Shanxi Province, could be your idea of heaven?
Or perhaps one of my favourites – a ewer in the shape of a bird dating back to the Western Zhou Dynasty and unearthed from one of those Dahekou tombs I just mentioned.
Over in the square exhibition hall, on the other hand, on the fifth floor is a much more user-friendly (and frankly less boring) exhibition. This is the exhibition of Folk Customs, where you’ll learn quite a bit about the hutongs (alleyways) and siheyuans (Chinese traditional courtyards) in Beijing, together with its folk customs such as weddings, celebrations of a baby's arrival, and various other festivals vividly presented.
We are told all about weddings and what happens on the first marital night (well, maybe we don’t learn everything that happened, but you get the idea.) Wedding ceremonies, for instance, always went through a complex series of rituals passed down through the generations. Take the Bridal Sedan Chair, for example. The bride would always be welcomed with a bridal sedan chair, regardless of her family’s financial condition or social status of the families.
We also get to see an ‘embroidered belly undergarment’ from the Republic of China period – but I’m still trying to work out how the girl would wear one of these contraptions in the first place, and whether her new husband would find the tassels a tease or a turn on!
There are all kinds of masks, too. This one, we are told, is in the shape of a girl (thank goodness most of the ones I meet nowadays are a lot more attractive!) and it dates back to the Qing Dynasty.
Shoes were always an appreciated present, and this pair with a Tigerhead toecap also dates back to the Qing Dynasty. Patrilineal aunts would present a child with shoes while matrilineal aunts would present socks – which to me rather takes away the fun at present-opening time, don’t you think? “Oh thanks, auntie. It’s … a … pair of socks! Wow!” Nope, I just can’t see it!
In the Republic of China era, baby boys would be given a tiger head cap, while girls received a lotus flower cap.
Moving into the pantry area, you’d also be likely to come face to face with a rendition of the Kitchen God. I hate to think what this God thinks he/she/it is doing with the fish between his/her/its legs but it certainly appears to have had some kind of effect on his/her/its lipstick/moustache!
Moving down to the fourth floor in the Square Exhibition Hall, you can enjoy a collection of 262 Tibetan and Han Buddha statues on display, most of which have never been shown to the public before.
Chinese Tibetan Buddhism is a sect which came about from the amalgamation of the Esoteri sect of Indian Buddhism with Chinese Mongolian and Tibetan traditional cultures. In the early seventh century, art coming from India and Nepal merged with the traditional aesthetic carving techniques of the Mongolians and Tibetans. This Makara-faced Goddess, we are told, dates back to the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), though I always think that saying something was made in the 17th, or 18th, or 19th, or perhaps the 20th century doesn’t really leave you much the wiser!
Along the corridor from the Buddha collection is an exhibition of 170 pieces and sets of porcelain ware which focuses on porcelain from the Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties – or, to put it another way, they were all made sometime in the past millennium.
I’m not normally a fan of porcelain vases, but I have to admit a fondness for this blue and white covered jar with a goldfish and algae design dating back to the 16th century.
What I am a fan of, however, is collections of black and white photographs showing life a century or so back. Take these shots, for instance, of the business streets found in Dashilar during the Republic of China period.
My favourite pic in this display has to be of the now long-defunct archways at Dongsi, whose only claim to fame nowadays seems to be as a junction between lines 5 and 10 on the subway system.
Of course, with the Capital Museum’s history of having been originally established at the Confucius Temple, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to have worked out that sooner or later you are going to come across an image or three of the old sage himself.
But I’m not sure that if I had been around in his day I would have considered for one moment buying a second hand cart from him if he really looked like this. You somehow just ‘know’ that he would probably have pocketed your handful of RMB and done a runner!
Beijing, we are reminded constantly, is a world renowned ancient capital, rich in cultural heritage. “The time honoured brands in Beijing represent the kernel of traditional Chinese urban culture and witness the business development of Beijing.” Well, that’s what it says.
I guess my daughter, who works in the beer trade, would appreciate these two beauties (the posters, that is, not the girls!). This first advertisement is for Shuanghesheng Beer, which was slugged down by the flagon-load in the years from 1912 to 1949.
Or how about this advert for Peiping Beer? (Peiping is an earlier spelling of Beiping, which is an earlier spelling of Peking, which is an earlier spelling of Beijing… <yawn>)
I can imagine this petite beer-swilling temptress would have been a right hit down in the local on a Friday night!
But enough of such floozies! This is a serious museum; and the next thing your favourite blogger comes across is an aerial photograph nicely displaying the central axis that runs through the capital. I’m not sure why it is displayed at this precise point, but it is pretty nonetheless.
But lest you should have become complacent over the last five hours of wandering around this treasure house, you have to remember that this is China; and the Chinese are never happy, it appears, unless they can remind themselves constantly how they have been the victims of endless nasty foreigners invading their land and doing horrid things to their citizens.
Hence this last section which is called China And The Anti-Fascist War Of The World. OK, you have to admit that they did suffer quite a bit at the hands of the beastly Europeans and then the wily Japs – and if you are into gruesome pictures, then this is a great place to end your tour.
But it is quite clear that for many, this is possibly one gallery that is too much to take in, all in one day; though again, you have to remind yourself that the Chinese also find going to a furniture store a tiring experience (if the piles of snoring bodies lying across the beds on sale in IKEA are anything to go by). So maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this one picture.
Maybe you should visit the Capital Museum for yourself, sometime, and make up your own mind, rather than just being an armchair traveller…