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Riding the buses » China, Cultural travel, Memorable moments, Travel itinerary » “The Chinese people have stood up”: So says the National Museum of China

“The Chinese people have stood up”: So says the National Museum of China

The National Museum of China underwent a four-year reconstruction and expansion project and was officially opened March 1, 2012.  It is across from Tiananmen Square and from the second floor you can look down on the huge image of Mao that is found in the square. Like the Square, the building is massive with lots of open spaces. The museum provides a crash course on one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

The permanent collections include two exhibitions on Chinese history, one on the ancient past and the other, “the Road to Revolution”, on the past 150 years.

Ancient History

The exhibition on Ancient China is organized by Chinese dynasties and there are many precious cultural relics on display. All the exhibits are wonderfully presented and a student of Chinese history could spend days here.

Most of the visitors to the museum are Chinese and it is fascinating to watch them go from showcase to showcase, reading every description, taking photo after photo. There is much here that would stimulate pride. The section on Chinese calligraphy explains the long tradition of the art of writing. The classical paintings of ancient China have never before been shown to the public. Some of the country’s finest jade objects are displayed showing how the distinct jade-carving tradition started eight thousand years ago.

Road to Revolution

The Road to Revolution starts at the Opium War of 1839 when people, led by the Communist Party of China, “stood up to fight and searched for a way to rejuvenation”. The exhibition is divided into five sections:

1) China reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society
2)   Seeking a way to save China
3) The Communist Party of China with the historical mission for independence and liberation
4)   Building a socialist new China
5)   Socialist road with Chinese characteristics.

This exhibition, in contrast to the Ancient History one, is defined by politics, starting with how China was “humiliated by western powers” yet eventually triumphed because of the Communist Party of China. Certain moments in history are notably forgotten such as the policy known as the Great Leap Forward which caused devastating famines resulting in millions of deaths or the persecution of large segments of the population during the Cultural Revolution.

Instead, the messaging is all about celebrating China; that the birth of the Communist Party of China was an “earth shattering event” when all ethnic groups in the country “stood up”.

This same political tone is evident in the collection of modern Chinese masterpieces, considered to be the art history of the People’s Republic of China. There are 49 large oil paintings mounted on a red background and includes some of the states most famous artwork such as “Founding Ceremony of People’s Republic of China” and “Crossing the Yellow River at Night”.  It really is a must-see.

Interpreting History

I understand the museum’s renovation was long delayed because of strong disagreement about the presentation of the recent past. In the end, there is one museum with two very different exhibitions, one seemingly factual, the other obviously ideological, both very stimulating. Thankfully the descriptions of most of the exhibits are provided in English.

I heard a Chinese author interviewed on CBC radio the other day and he said his people have long been discouraged from being different; he illustrated this with the Chinese maxim:  “Birds that fly south are the first to be shot”. When you walk the streets of Beijing you see many  young people “flying” not just south but in all directions, at least in their appearance. They now dare to be different. Perhaps that evolution will be reflected in the “Road to Revolution” five or 10 years from now.


By Sylvia Fanjoy

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2012

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