There’s a large classical building facing the Tonghui River at Gaobeidian, itself overshadowed by an upmarket apartment block owned by Marriott. Many people simply go past on the bus giving it hardly a second glance. But inside is one of the most impressive – dare I say it, flamboyant – collections in Beijing.
Welcome to the China Red Sandalwood Museum (中国紫檀博物馆)
The museum is the first and largest in China dedicated to Red Sandalwood artwork. Inside there are around 1,000 pieces on display, including some precious artefacts from the past 500 years, spread over some 10,000 square metres. It is said that the total investment was over 200 million RMB (or 20 billion RMB, if you believe Wikpedia).
Sandalwood is a hard wood, which makes it excellent for making furniture. But, as the blurb tells us, preserving red sandalwood carvings is not easy, as they are sensitive to heat and humidity and must be kept under constant control.
The museum was the brainchild of Chen Laiwa, who is a member of the CPPCC, and who also happens to be an entrepreneur with a personal fortune of around 38 billion RMB. In 2014, Forbes ranked her as one of only 19 self-made female billionaires in the world. She is the founder and chairman of Fuwah International Group, one of Beijing's largest commercial property developers, which is where she made most of her fortune.
Many have been unkind in their description of this woman, the most vitriolic (that I have found) being in a blog on medium.com which describes the museum as “the most sprawling imaginable kitsch, it is principally a temple to the ego of its owner, Dr. Chén Lìhuá …. When she opened the museum in 1999 she was said to be the richest woman in China, in the mould of Imelda Marcos.” Ouch!
Others describe her in more glowing terms: “Chen is known for her social responsibility and philanthropy. Fu Wah donated 130 million yuan for disaster relief in 2005 and 265 million yuan in 2004.”
The collection is housed across four floors of this beautiful building, and by anyone’s standards it is absolutely breathtaking.
As you enter, the first thing you see is one of two very large cabinets carved with dragon patterns, that even have dragons on the gold hinges. They are copies of cabinets found inside the Forbidden City.
The most impressive thing on the ground floor, however, is best viewed over the balcony on the second floor – an exact 1:1 replica of the Throne of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which is housed in the Palace Museum and which is made entirely of red sandalwood covered with gold foil.
Also on this floor, a stunning 1:5 model of the Corner Tower of the Forbidden City weighing 6 tons, and standing three metres tall. Constructed with traditional techniques of tenon and mortice joints, it consists of 3-layered eaves, 6 gable and hip roofs, and 72 ridges.
In yet another corner of this floor is a screen and throne, which would have been used only by the emperor, empress or imperial concubines and which would have been found in the main hall of the palace or in the main room of the bedchamber. "They look especially solemn and dignitly" (sic), the accompanying plaque says!
Not all the furniture in the museum is made of sandalwood, red or otherwise. Here, for instance, is a set of furniture inlaid with mother of pearl that has been made from huali wood (also known as fragrant rosewood). The table top and the back of the armchairs are decorated with marble.
The second floor of the China Red Sandalwood Museum focuses on many precious screens, and more thrones with exquisite carvings. Here’s an ebony screen that folds into eight components which feature maid motifs painted on silk.
Some of the detail carved into the wood furniture is amazingly detailed and dead impressive!
And if you are into display cabinets, these two placed side by side are simply gorgeous.
Other furniture is less wow-defying, though I doubt you would complain about having one of these in your bedroom. This is an ebony tapered cabinet with lattice doors, having four rounded-corners and which is typical of the Ming dynasty.
There’s also a mocked-up bridal chamber on show, with a red sandalwood circle gate canopied bed taking central place, together with a mahogany lamp, dressing table, long table, square desk and coat hanger. The bed and cabinet are copies of originals in the Forbidden City.
This pair of book cabinets is made of red sandalwood with inlaid boxwood. There are a thousand words carved onto the front of the cabinets. The story goes that Emperor Wu (464 – 549AD), founding emperor of the Liang Dynasty, randomly picked out 1,000 words from a work by a well-known calligrapher called Wang Xizhi. He then commanded one of his officials to compose the 1,000 words into an article which should also rhyme. The result incorporates astronomy, geography, economy, politics and culture and is known as the "Concentrated Encyclopaedia".
On the third floor is where visitors can park their situpons for a while, but this being China, you won’t be surprised to see whole families taking out their well-prepared picnics and munching away. Really, is there any other nationality on earth that would even consider going to enjoy a picnic inside a museum?
But back to the collection. Here’s a very cute looking canopy bed with circular entrance made of huang huali wood.
And if it is screens you are after, here’s a double sided screen made of amboyna wood (which is also known as Burmese rosewood or Narra – the national tree of the Philippines). It features lions playing with balls carved in relief at its base.
There are so many pieces of furniture that it is often difficult to know if they are originals or 'simply' original copies! Many of the plaques giving information on the items are curt in their descriptions. Here’s a mahogany cabinet with a flower motif, which we are told “may be rated as a fine work of the art". Hmmm
On the third floor, there’s an amazing 1:8 size model of a Beijing courtyard. The complex consists of two parts – the front functioned as a working area for political activities and the back was a traditional dwelling. The entrance gate is built in the centre of the quadrangle with screen walls on either side. The detail is considerable – you can even see stones used for getting on or off a horse and pillars for tethering it. This was the first time an attempt was made to build a model of a Prince's residence in red sandalwood.
Another screen – this time in teakwood, features a Great Wall motif, which, we are told, "reaches the higher level of art". (I am left wondering which of the previous exhibits were of a lower scale only.)
Nearby is a gilded 'arhat' bed, decorated with lotus carvings. I don’t know how comfortable these things would have been to lie on, but it certainly looks impressive.
One thing that is certainly impressive is a root carving of the novel "Journey to the West" in camphor wood. (In the novel, Monk Xuanzang in the Tang dynasty was accompanied by his three disciples on a journey to India).
The detail on the 2-metres high carving is quite extraordinary.
Another outstanding model is that of the Yongdingmen (永定门), a 1:10 likeness of the former front gate of the outer city of Beijing's old city wall. It is made from red sandalwood and Chinese Wing-nut (Pterocarya stenoptera).
Originally built in 1553, the original Yongdingmen was dismantled in 1957 to make way for Beijing’s new road system, but was reconstructed at the site of the old city gate in 2004. It used to be used by emperors whenever they left Beijing’s outer city.
Finally, the museum’s ‘Pièce De Résistance’ on the fifth floor is a red sandalwood model of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest in the Temple of Heaven. This 1:10 model weighs 10 tons and is the largest red sandalwood artwork in the museum.
Overall, this museum is an amazing collection in which superlatives are out-trumped by yet more superlatives as you wander around each floor. It’s well worth a visit in my view and certainly ranks as one of the best museums in Beijing. You certainly won’t be disappointed!
To get to the museum, take the Batong Line to Gaobeidian Station, and then walk westwards along Jianguo Road for around 400 metres.