Beijing's strangest museums

A wry look at the city's bizarre museums

Illustration by Timothy McEvenue
I went to Tiananmen Square the other day and realised I hadn’t been there for about three years. That’s not uncommon; when you live somewhere like Beijing, the only time you go to the tourist spots is when a visitor is in town. Some cities weave their sights with habitable areas; live in London or New York and you’ll pass by them every day without a second glance. Tiananmen isn’t like Trafalgar or Times Square, part of the fabric of the city; it’s more like a taped-off disaster zone.

I was visiting the National Museum of China, something I hadn’t done since before the Olympics. I love museums, though I go through them fast; I can take in a country’s entire history and self-image in an hour. Maybe two, if it’s big. 

It was much as I remembered; an ode of triumphalist history with some very nice bronzeware. British 19th-century liberals believed the whole course of human events had led up to the establishment of the most benign form of government, which just so happened to be 19th-century liberalism. And it seems the three – no, wait, four; no, hang on, five – thousand years of Chinese history have also been leading up to perfection: also known as the PRC. 

Close by is the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, which tells a similar story about the growth of Beijing. I will admit, though, that the giant scale-model of the city is great; shame they won’t let you take toys there and simulate battles. And there are lots of flashing lights, which are essential to any exhibit. But there are other Chinese museums that put forward their own side of the story. Tucked away in nondescript buildings are 100 other histories, ranging from the State-approved to the dissident to the bizarre. 

There’s another museum of Urban Planning, about the concept rather than the city itself. I tried to visit both on the same day, but the traffic was far too bad to make it. There are the minority museums, usually very heavy on costumes and less so on culture. There are about a dozen sex museums in China, with uncomfortable-looking Ming dildos and erotic paintings with earnest explanatory notes about their historical significance, like my edition of Jing Ping Mei, which had a long introduction about how insightful it is, and how long sequences of people saying, ‘Oh, Daddy, that’s right, take your little whore!’ (sic!) are, in fact, biting social satire. 

There’s a Paleolithic museum in the bottom of a shopping mall in Wangfujing. There’s the Bee Museum, which claims that ‘Bees are our friends!’ (a lie, as my six-year-old self will tell you). There’s the Tank Museum, which is awesome if, like me, you like tanks, but very dull if, like my unfortunate fiancée, you don’t. There are museums for specific substances – jade, sandalwood, glass. 

The king of these is the magnificent Museum of Concrete, uncovered by a colleague out in the drowned wastelands of Fangshan. It is, naturally, in an abandoned factory, and full of rusting equipment for drilling – or grinding! – concrete, though sadly lacking in, say, the beautiful concrete jewellery of the early Han. There are plenty of concrete Buddhas in Asia; they could have got one of those. I enjoy a concrete museum as much as the next man, but this one seemed abstract: for no particular reason, it has a collection of Japanese katana swords captured during the war. Disappointingly, they are not made of concrete. 

Dongzhimen’s Museum of Tap Water runs a close second; it boasts the ‘90-year progress of Beijing tap water!’ – presumably from the undrinkable stuff of today to the clean, fine supply of 2102. 

The most touching thing is often the curators themselves. Some of the small museums are literally a room in someone’s house, or a rented space for a personal passion. Often you have to go and find the owner – who tends to be old – to get in. At the museums for the Cultural Revolution – more common in China than you’d think – they’re sombre older men, who spend their lives mulling over what was done to them, or what they did. 

I was once in either Gansu or Mongolia – somewhere flat and bereft of civilization; it might have been Shunyi, actually – where I visited a museum which was just a locked shed, in the desert, with a phone number. You called it, and an hour later, a man showed up and took you round. It took about 15 minutes and cost 10RMB. Now that’s devotion to history.