One of the things that Beijing seems to excel at is putting up museums and exhibitions that appear to have no meaningful purpose whatsoever, other than to state the blindingly obvious. One such museum is called the Museum of Chinese Women and Children, renamed the China National Museum of Women and Children, a.k.a. the Chinese Museum of Women and Children – depending on whether you read its title outside the building or inside its hallowed portals.
We are told that it is regarded as a great event in the development history of undertakings for China's women and children, and the common dream of Chinese revolutionists and social workers … and is affiliated to the All-China Women's Federation. Ah. Now we are getting to the heart of the matter! A portion of building funds came from the government, the majority from the All-China Women's Federation foundation.
As the director of the museum’s social education department is quoted as saying, Chinese history pays little tribute to women. In our museum, they are the protagonists of history and men and women are portrayed as equals.
Or to put it another way, women are people too!
Whatever your level of cynicism, the museum was opened to the public in 2010, and is the country’s first national museum focused on women, children and social changes that impacted them.
Its 35,000 sq metres include 11 exhibition halls spread across six floors that show off some 30,000 exhibits, depicting ancient, modern and contemporary women, and celebrating international friendship and women's art.
The museum building is said to feature contemporary architectural elements, such as a curved ceiling that symbolises female gentleness and charm.
Further, the diverse styles of exhibition design harmonize with the museum's architecture. They include board exhibitions, displays of cultural relics that reflect daily life and recreational pastimes and sand-tray models, as well as phantom and virtual imaging, digital film representations and simulations of history.
Three floors are devoted to artefacts, games and activities associated with childhood; and three are about women – tracking the progress for women's equality in the 20th century, with the rise of Republicanism and Communism.
I head first for the top floor which apparently has a hall of women’s wear, which one contributor to Trip Advisor remarks as well worth seeing.
Alas, there is nothing showing women’s wear at all. Perhaps it is all on loan to some other exhibition? Instead there are glass cases all showing pictures of dogs, doggie sculptures, doggie art… and nothing whatsoever to do with fashion. Well, a women’s museum devoting an entire gallery to dogs is… different, I suspect!
Right beside this canine gallery is the Hall of Women’s Art which houses different forms of embroidery, brocade, paper-cuts, printing and dyeing as well as paintings and calligraphy that pay tribute to the talent, creativeness and artistic sensibilities of Chinese women.
In this hall are representative works of Chinese women artists of different dynasties, regions and ethnic groups including embroidery, brocade, paper cuts, printing and dyeing, calligraphy and paintings, we are told.
Embroidery is yet another thing that the Chinese invented, apparently. Records show that embroidery originates in the legendary Emperor Yushun period (~4,000 years ago). The earliest architectural proof, however, is no earlier than the Shang Dynasty (17th-11th century BC).
Nowadays, four schools of Chinese embroidery art are said to embody the myriad styles found in China: namely, Suzhou embroidery (elegance), Hunan embroidery (lifelike), Sichuan (refinement) and Cantonese (grandeur).
Here’s a cute example of Suzhou embroidery by Gu Wenxia called ‘Cat and butterfly’. It was made in the 1990s.
Bian Embroidery is named after the capital of the northern Song dynasty, and is thus also known as Song Embroidery. This school specialised in crafting apparel for royalty and was regarded as the 'official' suppliers to the court. Today, Bianliang embroidery specialises in reproducing paintings of China such as this 'Riverside Scene at the Pure Brightness Festival' by Zhang Zeduan, a famous painter of the Northern Song Dynasty.
Printing and dyeing share similar principles with the production of batik and tie-dye, but is somewhat more complicated. It flourished during the Tang Dynasty when it was called ‘Jiaxie’. By the Song Dynasty the techniques further matured to the point where they are near identical to today's blue and white dyeing.
When it comes to paper cutting, southern China puts more emphasis on being lifelike, with more intricate patterns than those found in the north. They are said to enjoy high popularity in the eastern coastal areas and in the south west.
To my mind, the most interesting hall in the entire museum is the one called The Hall of International Friendship. In it are loads of gifts given by various embassies to the museum – some of which are beautiful and some of which are, frankly, ‘tat’.
For instance, the Embassy of the Republic of Vanuatu donated this ‘headwear, straw bag, and skirt’, though no mention is made of where the coconut bra came from, which, if I am completely honest, is the very first thing you notice about this exhibit.
The Laotian embassy donated some puppets in traditional costume, which are all very sweet, I guess.
But this next display? The notice simply says ‘African Women’s Training Center’, depicting black women being shown how to sew by a (Chinese?) woman – which for a section devoted to building friendship across the world in a museum devoted to breaking down old stereotypes simply reinforces the stereotype of Africa being a third world continent. I wonder what message they are trying to convey?
The Greek Ministry of Culture donated this rather hideous stone carving, again reinforcing stereotypes that all Greece has to offer are statues with various body parts chopped off to make them look more antique.
Maybe the tat helps in one’s appreciation of some of the stuff that is really rather beautiful, such as this wall hanging donated by the Myanmar Women's Federation…
or this silver foil picture presented by the Laos Women's Federation.
I particularly like this picture presented by the Mongolian Democratic Socialist Women's Association.
The next gallery tells us that women's organisations in China have established friendly ties with nearly 700 women and children's organisations in 172 countries across the world. Chinese women play a unique role in promoting understanding and friendship between the Chinese people and other peoples in the world and have made positive contributions to world peace, common development and gender equality.
For instance, in February 1964, Soong Ching-Ling, Vice President of the PRC visited Ceylon and was warmly welcomed by Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister.
Errr, just a minute… I can see Ms Soong C-L, but Mrs Bandaranaike? Ah yes, if you look carefully you can just see her outstretched hand in the bottom left of the photo! (Don’t you just love it!)
Of course, no Chinese museum would be complete without a photo or three of the Great Helmsman and this museum pulls out all the stops on this score.
But look carefully at this photo of Mao posing with a group of women delegates from the frontiers of national liberation struggles of southwestern Africa in October 1964. Something is wrong, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. The lighting and contrast of the three Chinese representatives is totally different from the African delegates. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they had simply been Photoshop’d into the group. Surely not!
Everywhere throughout the entire museum are photographs of women doing such extraordinary things as this CPPCC representative inspecting a sewage treatment facility in Shenyang in 2006. How amazing is that? Women really are the equals of men!
Chinese women apparently also excel in some sports. Here, for instance is an autographed volleyball celebrating the China Women’s Volleyball Team's five successive championships.
And never let it be said that the state doesn’t care for its female workers. Here, for instance, is a photo that is captioned ‘Former laid-off women workers now air hostesses in Shanghai’. I wonder if they were all recruited 'en masse' at a knock down rate? I’ll never be able to fly Shanghai Air without thinking of these fortunate girls.
The historical galleries will, I am sure, appeal to many visitors too.
I particularly like the notice in the Hall of Women in Ancient China that tells us that In more than 5,000 years of Chinese civilisation, women have made great contributions to the continuation of the Chinese nation. I guess by that they mean that men would have had great difficulty in producing babies on their own?
Ah yes.. here we are: Giving birth to new life enabled mothers to enjoy a lofty position in the clan society.
And we are even told that During their long practice of cooking, women learned to make various potteries.
There’s an extensive display of ‘ancient coins’ in a large glass cabinet, but alas it doesn’t say what role women played in the history of coinage. Oh, maybe they used them when buying things?
Of course, anything men could do, women could also do… For instance, there was even a female emperor. Her name was Wu Zetian (武则天), and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right. She is said to have been the most effective and controversial monarch in China's history.
I particularly like this backgrounder on the woman that you can find on https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/wu-zetian. It begins: Meet Wu Zetian, first and only female Emperor of China — seen here poisoning her infant daughter. Now, that’s actually a bit of a historical inaccuracy: the poison was used to knock off her other family members. Her young daughter, she strangled, in order to frame her rival for the throne’.
There are portraits of other royal spouses too. Here for instance, we see Empress Xiaozhuang (1613-1688) in court dress. Born to a noble Mongolian family, she assisted three generations of emperors, making great contributions.
At the other end of the social scale is a photo of a Beijing prostitute in the late Qing dynasty, (but it doesn’t tell us which of the three women is the hooker!). Prostitution was legalised after the Allied Forces imposed massive retribution payments following the Opium Wars as a means of something else that could be taxed by the government.
Also on display are shoes used by women subjected to the horrific practice of binding feet in order, it is said, to make them look more beautiful.
There is even a photo on display showing the deformity that such a practice created, something that is not even shown in the Museum of Bound Feet in Wuzhen.
As we come to the Hall of Women in Modern China, there are naturally many more photos adorning the walls.
There are sculptures, too, like this one showing female soldiers marching into battle, with one woman even carrying a child on her back!
But there are also plenty of photos of some of the atrocities that the Japanese meted out during their occupation of mainland China.
Reverting to the Hall of Children in Ancient China, the first thing you come across is a display about the Imperial Examination System – not something I would have thought could really be described as something to do with children. But then, what do I know!
Another floor features puppets in cabinet after cabinet after cabinet stuffed full of the little creatures.
Some are quite cute, it has to be said; but after the nth cabinet with yet another doll or puppet inside, the thrill definitely lessens.
Overall, then, whether you are cynical like this aging blogger or not, there is plenty to see in this museum.
Entrance is free, providing you bring some official ID, such as a passport.
The China Museum of Women and Children is a mere 5 minute walk eastbound from exit B of the Dongdan metro station on line 1 or 5. Its address is Beijigelu 9. Look for the Jianguo Garden Hotel on Chang’an Avenue, and it is immediately behind it.