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Lost in a Beijing Museum

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It stands to reason that Beijing, being the capital city, possess a multitude of museums to explore. Perhaps most famous of all is the Palace Museum, a sort of living, breathing insight into decadent imperial life during Ming-Qing China. It is, of course, better known as the Forbidden City. 

While the city abounds with architectural heritage of a pedigree that lures visitors from the provinces and overseas in their droves. If you’re looking for a more conventional museum space, say somewhere warm and dry where you might explore the riches of antiquity, furnish your understanding of Chinese art or get to know about the accomplishments of the Middle Kingdom, you’d best pick your exhibition center wisely – there are 43 official museums in total.

There is quite a variation in the standard and quality to be honest, from the prodigious to the peripheral, the outmoded to the ultra-modern. Thus the following text is a designed as a guide to help you navigate your way through the collections of cultural, technological and creative interest on display in Beijing. 

The National Museum of China

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Wherever you decide to visit during your Beijing sojourn, The National Museum of China should be top of your itinerary. Set beside Tiananmen Square in a giant and imposing concrete building, your passport / ID card will win you free entrance to a labyrinth of exhibition space. Some of the displays are temporary and rotating whereas some, like The Road of Rejuvenation – which tells the decline and rise of China over the last two centuries with gushing patriotism – are permanent.

But what is certainly the main draw is the permanent exhibition in the basement, branded simply in English as “Ancient China.” As the introduction states, “it unfolds the Chinese history in eight sections from prehistoric times to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.” What this implies is a tour of 10,000 years of history through functional objects as well as artistic and sacred artifacts. Beginning in the early Neolithic period where stone polishing tools have been discovered in several sites across the country; the exhibit then leads into the early cultures of the Xia, Shang, and Western Zhou Dynasty. By the “Unified Empire” of the Qin and Han Dynasties objects assume a recognizably Chinese form – a stone bixie from the Western Han is a standard piece in this collection. Following the Sui, Tang and onwards to the Celestial Song, a visitor bares witness to some of the finest pieces of porcelain, sculptural works and ornate objects collected on the planet. It’s an exquisite collection that documents the development of Chinese civilization until the demise of the imperial system in 1911.

The National Art Museum of China

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If you’re looking for edgy, contemporary expression the art villages of Songzhuang and Caochangdi are doubtlessly the places to head. That said The National Art Museum, centrally located and free to get in, is worth snooping around if you’ve time on your hands. With five floors and over 100,000 pieces to check out, including a collection of masterworks from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there’s plenty to feast one's eyes on.  At the time of writing a retrospective exhibition of sculptural works by Liu Huanzhang and a special exhibition on Chinese railway development that include the photos of Wang Fuchun, were drawing the crowds.

China Railway Museum

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This remarkable museum is divided into two sites. The smaller of the two is located near Tiananmen Square in what was Beijing’s original Zhengyangmen East Station. Inside you begin a journey through 130 years of Chinese locomotive history, told via old photographs, narrative placards, and relics from various epochs. 

However, to get up close and personal with the trains themselves, one should set their sights further afield to Dongjiao where a collection of trains from the Qing Dynasty to the twenty-first century can be explored, touched and occasionally climbed aboard. The range is quite bewildering; beginning with foreign imported steam engines and concluding with China’s homemade high-speed trains, the like of which make travel so efficient these days. But the highlight for many remains Mao Zedong’s private carriages, which demand special attention. Here visitors can experience first-hand how the Chairman got around the country. His private study, meeting room, and even his personal bathtub have been opened to public view, while the front of his train brandishes a golden crest of the Helmsman himself.   

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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