Time Travel - 5,000 BC to 2011 in one day!

Trip Start Jul 22, 2011
Trip End Aug 12, 2011

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National Museum of China

Flag of China  ,
Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Incredibly, this is our fourth and last day in Beijing. The days seem to be flying by.  When we arrived in Beijing, the days stretched before us.  Now with one day remaining, I'm aware that our sojourn here is almost over and this morning I awoke with a feeling of poignancy.   I reminded myself to live in the present-moment and enjoy whatever we do today.  Little did I know that these feelings of time passing were to be a theme for the day as we whipsawed across 5,000 years of Chinese history.

As summer homes go, the Summer Palace built in 1750 as an imperial garden and temporary palace for the royal family is extraordinary.  Until I saw it, I couldn’t fathom the extraordinary excess.   Try to imagine over 17 acres of palaces and gardens and a lake that takes up 75% of the 741 acres.  Imagine having a moat built for you to ride by boat from the Forbidden City to the Summer Palace.  Imagine a pavilion built for your amusement offering private music and dance performances.   We got to see one of these "typical" performances!  You can too by watching the video.  I wish I could remember the typical meal that our guide described – all I can remember is the incredible quantity of dishes and meticulous food preparation.  Notice the repeated words of “extraordinary” and “incredible”! The architecture was also fascinating.  A prominent decoration included the bat (the animal) and we learned that “bat” and “blessing” are the same word in Chinese. I am not particularly fond of bats and wouldn’t want my home decorated with them, but I thought understanding the symbolism helped to peel a layer of the onion that I was increasingly viewing as our China experience.  There were also 3 Chinese characters prominently displayed which mean Blessing, Wealth, Longevity.  The Dowager Empress, also called the Dragon Lady, had quite an insulated luxurious life, full of intrigue.  Take a look at some of her photos and maybe you will make up some interesting stories to complete the pictures.

Gerry, our guide, by now knew that anything with music was sure to please, so he suggested we make our way in a certain direction because there would be a likelihood of music.   Sure enough as we approached a covered pavilion, we hear music and singing.  There are live musicians (watch video) and people are standing in rows with their songbooks, belting out the words and swaying with the music.  We are smiling and curious and I stand by others who are watching also.  One man waves his fan to cool me.  Another person grabs Harvey’s hand and takes him to one of the rows of singers and hands him a pom pom that high school cheerleaders use in the States.  Harvey is moving his hips to the music, smiling and generally being a really good sport. Another person grabs my hand and pulls me into the group, with other women opening a space for me to join in.  Everyone is smiling and we are all having a good time.  When the music ends, we say “xie xie” which means thank you and move aside.  When the music starts again, a woman asks Harvey to dance.  So here is Harvey, an entrepreneurial capitalist singing and dancing to songs of the revolution and the future good life!  What a memorable moment.  That right turn that we took at Gerry’s suggestion, turned out to be a highlight of the day and we might have missed it without his guidance.

As we exited the Summer Palace Tourist Volume Forecast was posted.  The day before, 44,000 people visited and the forecast was for 42,000 today, a weekday.  On the same board was today’s weather forecast.   This summer season is a busy period for the burgeoning middle class in China to tour their own country.  We saw few westerners as we walked the grounds.

The National Museum of China is an old new museum in Tiananmen Square. Huh?  It was re-organized in 2003 out of two separate museums, The Museum of the Chinese Revolution and The National Museum of Chinese History. And now after more than a decade of construction it reopened this spring 2011 in a space designed to be the world’s largest museum under one roof.  It is another example that every project in China seems to be on a massive scale. Not all the galleries are open for viewing yet (we are visiting on July 26, 2011).  For now, we can see the biggest gallery taking up a quarter of the exhibition space called  “Ancient China”, a survey of thousands of years of history. At some time in the future, there will probably be headsets to guide viewers through the permanent galleries so for now we walk through reading the wall displays and exhibit cards that thankfully had English text.  There are 2,520 “precious objects” including 521 “first-class precious objects”.  It was a real treat to be able to walk through time seeing these objects of each age.  What was presented was a homogenized politically correct version of Chinese history, where conflicts were ignored and the 56 ethnic groups were presented as having always lived together harmoniously.  This is a vastly different version of history than what I learned in the Teaching Company Chinese History course, “From Yao to Mao: 5,000 years of Chinese History”.  Still, the objects make for incredible viewing.

I loved walking through the Ancient Chinese Porcelain Art, Bronze Art and Buddhist Sculpture galleries.  I wished there were more “back stories” and information about what we were viewing.   There is almost 30,000 square feet in galleries devoted to international culture, but we were too late in the day to gain admittance to the current exhibit, “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which will be on display for a year.  In a handshake to “cultural diplomacy”, this choice seems to be a statement of China’s emerging place in the world – it is not just an economic powerhouse.  At the time we walked by the gallery entrance, I wondered why I would want to come to China to see art from Europe.  Now I see more nuanced possibilities in viewing the gallery from the perspective of what would be chosen to display and how that fits into China’s view of itself.  Perhaps another layer of onion would have been revealed.  So it is a lesson learned in terms of keeping an open mind.

Which brings me to the last two galleries that we visited.  On the entrance floor is the Main Hall that showcases large paintings of Chairman Mao.  It was political art at its finest.    Which brings us to the gallery “The Road to Rejuvenation” which covers modern Chinese history from the First Opium War of 1839 to present day.   It is an excellent lesson in propaganda of the Communist Party of China.  Our guide was able to convince the guards to let us in for a short time just as they were clearing people out before closing.  We were able to get a feel how China wants to see itself.  Fascinating in its own way.

Overall, I think we spent about 3 hours in the National Museum of China.  Clearly, there is a lot to see and we could have spent a lot more time here.  Definitely worth going to!

We had mentioned in a conversation to our guide that we wished we had included seeing locals doing their early morning exercises at a park somewhere on our Beijing itinerary.  Gerry remembered this comment and on the way back to the hotel, we stopped in at a small park so that maybe we would see some people doing late afternoon Tai Chi or dancing.    We entered a long narrow park with a bowling lane type pond that seemed light years from the hubbub of the street.  We were rewarded with some people dancing and people sitting around talking.   We asked Gerry to take a photo of us on the bridge overlooking the pond.  A local also took a photo of us with his camera.  What does that say?

We learn that there has been a bullet train accident.  It has been reported that 35 people died.  The reports from Hong Kong state the number is more like 300 and that the car is being buried to hide the evidence.   A lot of accident reports will be the number 35, because anything more than that and officials will need to resign.  We are pulled back from our trip of 5,000 years of cultural history to the present day and its challenges!

As we walk back to the hotel we feel we have graduated from a newbie tourist to ones who have learned how to gently nudge and push through lines.  We know how to cross a city street that has bikes, scooters, cars and buses whose drivers sort of obey the traffic lights and lanes.  Our general strategy is to stand in the middle of a group and follow their footsteps. 

And so ends our stay in Beijing.

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