The massive building flanking a major part of the eastern side of Tiananmen Square is the National Museum of China – the largest museum in the world, based on an area of around 200,000 square metres.
While a museum, in fact museums, under various guises have been on this site since the early 1900s they have been dull, dour, poorly laid out and uninspiring places, big on getting the communist message and take on history across to visitors. Unsurprisingly few foreign visitors bothered to visit them.
The current incarnation, opened in March 2011, while still, some would say, portraying a rather Party orientated take on Chinese history, is, in my view, a must see while in Beijing and you need to allow about 3-4 hours for a fairly rudimentary viewing.
For the record, I made it out without becoming a card carrying Communist Party member and found no more political bias here than one does in any other national level museum – perhaps bar those I had just visited in North Korea.
I certainly could spend much longer than 3-4 hours in this museum but would split it across a number of visits to avoid being ‘museumed out’. As entry is free this is a feasible option, though you do have to brave a queue and security screening on each entry.
Unlike other ’national’ museums around the world the permanent collection of the National Museum of China is composed almost entirely of Chinese exhibits – not an Egyptian mummy or a Van Gogh in sight! This is not to say that you will not find non-Chinese content and regular temporary (visiting) exhibitions cater for this. When I was there, there was a visiting exhibition “Ten Masterpieces of French Painting” featuring work from a number of Parisian galleries. I didn’t visit it but this presented a wonderful opportunity for local people or indeed visitors who can not make it to Paris to see some quality European art. That said, the majority of the museums temporary exhibits are of Chinese content and supplement its two permanent exhibitions:
A massive exhibition and the backbone of the museum, across numerous galleries and covering from prehistoric times to the late Qing Dynasty (late 1800s) with a fantastic collection of wooden and stone carvings, sculptures, models, pottery, porcelain, jade, calligraphy, currency, jewellery and so much more from across the years and dynasties.
The Road of Rejuvenation
This is the ‘contentious one’ so rather than me relating my take in this general review I quote from the Museum’s website:
“The Road of Rejuvenation is one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions that reflects the Opium War of 1840 onward, the consequent downfall into an abyss of semi-imperial and semi-feudal society, the protests of people of all social strata who had suffered, and the many attempts at national rejuvenation – particularly the Communist Party of China’s fight for the liberation and independence of people of every ethnicity. The exhibition demonstrates the glorious but long course of achieving national happiness and prosperity and fully reveals how the people chose Marxism, the Communist Party of China, socialism, and the reform and opening-up policy. It attests to the Chinese priority of holding high the unswerving banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and of remaining firmly committed to the Chinese socialist road and theory.
Today, Chinese civilisation already stands tall in the East. With the bright prospects of the Great Revival already before us, the dreams and pursuits of Chinese sons and daughters will surely be achieved.”
Two very different exhibitions but both fascinating and worthy whatever time you can spare to indulge.
In addition to my first two pictures, the outside of the museum as seen from Tiananmen Square and a small section of the main lobby area, I have attached pictures of three exhibits:
Picture 3 – (Mao)Moving to Fight in Shanbei, 1959 by Shi Lui. A revolutionary and historic theme in the style of traditional Chinese landscape painting.
Picture 4 – A beautiful and very unusual gold and silver inlay, cloud-patterned rhinoceros vessel (zun) – Western Han (206 BC – AD8).
Picture 5 – World famous terracotta soldiers and a horse depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China dating from 210–209 BC and from the Emperor’s Mausoleum in Xian.
Selecting three items to show you from the many thousands on display was not easy! I will, over time, prepare separate reviews on some of the museum’s content and/or link other reviews to its content. Fear not, dear reader, I will not be covering all 1 million plus items.
Photography is permitted in the permanent exhibitions and regular displays, but no flash or tripod. In temporary exhibitions the rules vary – check prior to entry.
While there is a café and a tea room they are extremely small for a museum of this size and the tea room seemed very expensive based on the menu I saw. Neither establishment had any customers on the couple of occasions I passed by. The museum’s bookshops and souvenir stalls, on the other hand, are of a high quality and certainly worth a look.
Free to permanent and regular exhibitions (fee for some temporary exhibitions). Foreign visitors must enter by the ticket office at the West Gate and show their passport to gain entry (separate entry for Chinese citizens though everyone joins the same queue to gain initial entry to the museum grounds). Audio guides are available in a number of languages at a cost of RMB30 (2014). Luggage must be deposited at the cloakroom (cost RMB1) after security check.
Tuesday – Sunday, 9:00 – 17:00
But do check the website for entry over holiday periods.
Tiananmen Square -East Side
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on a number of trips to Beijing. I suggest you continue with my next entry – A New Dawn – China Sees Red – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my Beijing Introduction.