Brian Salter's Blogs:
A Blaze of Glory

 

Some people, it seems, can never be satisfied. Trolling through Trip Advisor I never cease to be amazed at some of the crass comments visitors come up with about the sights there are to see all over the world.

Take the China Fire Museum (also known as the Beijing Fire Fighting Museum), for instance. “An offbeat museum, but quite interesting” writes one visitor; while another opines “The museum itself is beyond boring… There is icecream and sodas available at the entrance.” (sic). For crying out loud, get a life!

For what it’s worth, my own opinion is that this is an excellent museum and well worth a visit, whether you are interested in fire fighting techniques or not. It goes out of its way to explain everything you ever wanted to know about the history of fighting fire in China's cities over the ages. (OK, so maybe you never wanted to know, but it’s good despite that.)

So let’s start at the beginning. Covering 9,500 square metres, it is the largest fire-themed museum and the only national-level fire industry museum in China. First opened in November 2011, there are now five halls spread over four floors, although when I was there, the lower ground floor (the fire experience and calamity prevention hall) was roped off. This, it appears from reading other Trip Advisor comments, to be the norm – so I never did get to see the “3D video regarding the origins of fire and its raw, unpredictable power”.

The online blurb tells you that there is capacity for between 100 to 300 people – though apart from me there were only bored looking museum guards whiling away their time with their mobile phones. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t even asked to show any ID – something that all the web sites tell you is absolutely essential to be allowed in.

One’s first thought on entering the building is that they have far too much space to fill, which explains the large open areas…

But maybe that’s not quite fair. On the ground floor, for instance, is a collection of half a dozen or so fire-fighting pumps and ladders – such as this one, used from the 1930s to the 1950s. It has a wheel base of two metres, and the ladder extends to 16 metres, apparently.

The next hall on the ground floor has a large display of calligraphy. Not something you would necessarily associate with a fire museum…

… until you discover that these works of art were done by fire-fighters – so it’s a kind of tribute to them, I guess. Some are really rather nice, such as this one from the Lhasa detachment of the Tibet fire-fighting corps…

While these two fans from Yunnan feature yet more calligraphy.

Heading to the second floor (what we Brits refer to as the first floor) there’s a historical view of fire: its evolution and use from ancient times, before 2070BC. “Fire”, we are told, “pre-exists human beings. After the birth, human beings have an intimate relationship with fire. The ancients bid farewell to the savage and wild times when learn to use fire. The character of 灾 (disaster), with the shape of fire in residence, means the disaster is caused by firing human residence. In fact, fires burn all.” So profound!

There’s even an old stick with holes caused, we are led to believe, by people making fire by twirling smaller sticks into it. Plenty of illustrative posters, just in case you are too thick to take that on board, too.

Very soon we meet E Bo (also known as the Prometheus of the East), who was the son of Emperor Ku, He was appointed as fire official in charge of Mars sacrifices, local fire control work and preservation of fire for the use of the public. Apparently he invented the fire calendar (not that I have any idea what that might be) and built a high platform to observe the stars in order to predict the weather and harvests.

What I love about this museum are the snippets of gossip recorded for our edification and delight! For instance, “The story of E Bo stealing fire is shared widely by local people telling that E Bo stole fire to demote to earth from the heaven and built high platform to protect the fire alone but starved to death unfortunately when God send flood to extinguish the fire”.

Another thing this museum excels at is the amount of drawings, paintings, diagrams and photographs depicting the destructive power of fire. Take this oil painting, for example: In the 13th year of Jianan Period, Emperor Xiandi, (208AD) Cao Cao led his army southward by water and land. His army encountered with the union army led by Sun Quan and Liu Bei at Chibi (in what is now Hubei province). Sun Quan and Liu Bei set fire attack to Cao Cao's fleet and it took a great toll on Cao's army. Cao lost this war and had to retreat and escape by Huarong Road.

Similarly, in the 4th year of Yixi Period of Emperor Andi's reign, Eastern Jin (408AD), Tao Yuanming (365-427AD) wrote a poem narrating a fire set on his house.

And according to the ‘Old Tang History, Annals on the Five Elements’, on the evening of December 25th 1764, a fire accident occurred in Ezhou (in what is now Hubei Province) in which 3000 boats were burnt and 2000 houses along the bank were destroyed by the fire. More than 4000 people died in the disaster.

It’s not hard to see why successive emperors took fire control so seriously. In the Song Dynasty, for instance, people who wanted to use fire at night time had to get prior approval from the fire chief in advance.

In 1015AD Emperor Zhenzong forbade any kindling to be kept in the palace, treasury, warehouse and grasslands in the capital. Anybody who kept kindling without permission which led to an outbreak of fire would be beheaded.

I’m particularly intrigued to learn that People who were off shift would also be inflicted with punitive punishment. (as opposed to those on shift whose punishment would not be punitive, one has to ask? Hmmm…)

In 1133, Emperor Gaozong issued orders that fire protection lanes were required to be built between residence areas, one lane every 50 houses. Each lane needed to be 10 metres wide. Grass roof houses were also to be replaced with terracotta tiles. Seven years later, Gaozong again issued orders following an outbreak of fire in a warehouse. This time he gave everyone just five days to remove all grass roofs.

Over at the Forbidden City things were well organised. There was a complete canal system with a moat surrounding it and Taipin Jars were placed in the more remote areas in case of fire. In addition, strict fireproof spacing was enforced and fireproof walls were also built.

Here’s a map showing the water system laid out in the Forbidden City.

There’s also a photo of the Capital Police Agency organising a fire fighting drill at the Forbidden City.

But despite their best efforts, accidents were bound to happen. The first train fire accident in Chinese history occurred on Feb 24th, 1889, when a train carrying kerosene was travelling from Tanggu to Tianin and collided with another train in the Xinhe section, causing the death of the driver and 20 passengers. Luckily an artist was on hand to quickly record the event…

Apart from glorifying fantastic blazes (and don’t we all love a good bonfire!), the China Fire Museum also glorifies the fire-fighters who took on the task of tackling the blazes. This is what a typical fireman might have looked like in the early years of the Shunzhi Period, when the Eight Banners Fire Fighting Organisation was set up.

In 1854 Britain, France and the USA established settlements in Shanghai. On July 20th1866, the No 1 Pump Fire Brigade was set up to become the first modern fire brigade in China.

During the Republic of China period (1912-1949) the western concept of fire control was widely learned and disseminated across China. Foreign equipment was imported and domestic protection industries began to flourish.

On display in the museum is also the ‘first combustion fire engine in China’.

(Irrespective of whether this is just a model, or the real thing, what intrigued me was the use of the words ‘combustion fire engine’, since what is fire if not combustion? But actually what they mean is that the engine driving the fire engine is an internal combustion engine. Isn’t English complicated!) This is a 1932 Cadilac engine which was modified into a fire engine. It made use of a Fiat high pressure centrifugal pump to produce the first powered fire engine in China.

As for the bits and pieces of the fireman’s standard toolkit, you can of course expect to see here loads of old style hydraulic pumps and hoses…

As well as firemen's protective suits – such as these from the early 1950s and from 1956.

And of course there are fire fighting and rescue outfits on display, such as these which include fireproof clothing, a diving suit, multi function, rescue clothing, chemical protection clothing, and so on.

And if fire fighting outfits are not your cup of tea, how about picture story books such as this one: Fire Control in Wartime, published in 1970?

Mind you, I love some of the old-style era posters such as this one: Poster Complying with Fire Control Regulations and Promoting Modernisation Drive, published by the Fire Department of Yunnan province in 1984

So, as I say, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about fire fighting and were afraid to ask. A ‘Museum beyond boring’? Give us a break, Mr Halfwit from Trip Advisor!

The China Fire Museum is at 70 Guang'anmen South Street, Xicheng District, Beijing. To get there, take subway line 10 to Jiaomen West, followed by a 474 bus (8 stops) or else take a 59 bus from Toaranting station on line 4 (6 stops) to DaGuanYuan GongJiaoChang Zhan.