Brian Salter's Blogs:
An almost totally forgotten museum in Gaobeidian


Gaobeidian is one of those parts of Beijing that I frankly dislike. I’ve written about it before and I don’t need to go in to the details; but it never gets any better for me. Except…

Except, sometimes it does. Not in the sense that I actually start to like the place – I don’t. But every so often it turns up something unexpected.

Take, for instance, the ‘Beijing Gaobeidian Treasure Park of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Arts’. I had never heard of it. But fate saw to it that I stumbled across this rather nice place when I took a wrong turning expecting to be where I wasn’t, if you get my drift.

A lot of it is still under renovation – or construction depending on your definition – but what they are doing so far is quite attractive. What caught my attention In the middle of that sign board were the words ‘Museum of Tables of Imperial Examinations’ (科举匾额博物馆). A museum? A museum of tables? Hmmm.

My instant translator app tells me that the Chinese name actually means ‘Imperial Examination Board Museum’. My curiosity is piqued. I turn to my iPhone map and yes, there in black and white, is something called ‘Imperial Examination Museum’. What am I waiting for?

I head on down the road, and come across a rather strange looking entrance to what looks a little like a museum inside. The sign on the door says there is a 40 kwai entrance fee. A bell pings as I go through an infrared beam. But no one comes to see who is there, and having called out a couple of times, I venture in.

Not a table in sight. And almost nothing in English to tell me where I am.

I search on the web for any information about the museum. has something written in Chinese that translates via Baidu as “Beijing Lizhi Tang imperial examination Museum, which is the Beijing imperial examination plaque Museum, collects more than 500 pieces of wood and stone plaque. Among them, there are nearly fifty pieces of stone inscriptions, which are the first in China. There are more than 40 plaque inscribed by thirty-two top scholars in Ming and Qing Dynasties, thirteen inscribed plaque inscribed on the top of the list, and twelve inscribed plaque inscribed on flowers. The most famous plaque in the years is Ming Yongle, sixteen years ago, five hundred and eighty-nine years ago. The imperial examination gate collected in Yuan Dynasty is the treasure of our town hall.” (sic)

Clang! Not ‘tables’ but ‘tablets’! Or ‘plaques’ to you and me.

On the walls is a smattering of old (dusty) photographs related to the imperial examination system of China that goes back over two millennia and whose influence pervades Chinese cultural values even to this day.

In one dirty cabinet is a pair of carved wooden decorations – beautifully done.

China was the first nation to appoint on merit rather than patronage; and in dynastic times, the path to wealth was by getting an appointment to a well paid government post as a civil service official. These posts were open to anyone who could pass the daunting exams.

Some candidates apparently tried to pass the exam throughout their lives, something that was not considered in the slightest bit strange, it seems. In 1889, 35 candidates from Anhui province were over 80 years old and 18 were over 90! If someone took the exams throughout their adult lives but failed, they were awarded the degree at the age of 80. And if a scholar survived to sixty years after graduation the Emperor would pay for a feast in his honour.

Here’s a picture of Emperor Wen Di of the Sui dynasty, who reigned from 581 to 604. In 583 he abolished the system of entrenched families holding local office by hereditary right and replaced this by a bureaucracy answerable to the throne. A method of selecting new men by examination and recommendation was devised.

Empress Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. In 702 she set up a martial arts examination, and from then on the imperial exams began to have two types – literal art exams and martial arts

Here is a print of a painting of the final round of a state-level exam in the Song Dynasty

And here is Wang' Anshi, known for his reforms aimed at cutting government expenditure and relieving the Northern Song dynasty of some of its organizational duties. Wang's reform agenda was not the first attempt at reducing the cost of the prodigious number of superfluous state agencies, but like earlier projects, it was doomed to fail because too many interest groups resisted his reforms.

Eventually, in 1905, the Empress Dowager CiXi abolished the imperial examination system altogether. (Have you noticed that in her photos she always seems a miserable old so-and-so!)

Once you are out of the main entrance display, there is a dishevelled garden of sorts at the back.

Some of the carved stone work was obviously impressive in its day, but time and neglect have combined not to be kind to what’s remaining.

There are outbuildings along the three remaining sides of this garden, and this is where you will find the main display of the signboards that once hung over house entrances to celebrate the imperial examination graduates living within. As often as not, this was a gift of fellow citizens basking in reflected glory upon their home town by the candidate’s success.

These plaques are everywhere, propped against walls, hanging from the ceilings and stuck in every available nook and cranny.

One of the outbuildings displays all of them hanging from the rafters, which I guess is somewhat in line with how they were meant to be viewed in the first place.

This forgotten museum is not going to appeal very much to those who don’t speak Chinese and/or don’t have a developed appreciation of calligraphy. But as something totally out of the ordinary, it should appeal to those of a curious mind.

It’s about 20mins walk almost due south from Gaobeidian on the Batong Line, but better is to take Line 1 to Sihui, and then to catch the Zhuan 167 bus and travel 6 stops to WenHuaXin DaJie Beinzhan. Walk straight on for 100 metres before turning right, and you’ll find the museum on your left 300 metres after that.