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.
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.
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
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