China: Museums

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 April, 2009, 12:00am

China: Museums
by Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande and Antony White
Scala, HK$295

The best way to appreciate the hundreds of museums the mainland has to offer is to explore the country.

Take a dirt road in a farming village near Linzi in Shandong and you will find a museum displaying the skeletons of 600 horses buried alive with Jing Gong, ruler of the Qin dynasty, complete with chariots. Or go to the Sichuan Cuisine Museum in Pixian's Gucheng Township, where you will learn that the spicy ingredient that gives the local cooking its fiery quality is not a peppercorn but the berry of the prickly ash (hua jiao). Or check out the Nantong Kite Museum in Jiangsu, where kites unique to the region carry whistles made of the cocoons of silkworms.

Intelligently written and beautifully illustrated, China: Museums takes much of the frustration out of exploring the mainland's treasures. The recent controversy over the sale of artefacts looted from the Summer Palace during the dying days of the Qing dynasty highlights just how raw feelings about heritage run in the country.

Throughout its long history, many of the country's greatest relics have been looted by successive invaders, stolen by grave robbers, taken by explorers to foreign museums, shipped to Taiwan with the Kuomintang or destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Understanding what remains, or what has been restored, is a major challenge, as is documenting the collections of recent artefacts on the burgeoning contemporary art scene.

The number of museums officially registered on the mainland went from 300 in 1990 to 2,310 last year. China: Museums looks at 218, covering those with high-end collections in the big cities, the rough-and-ready museums documenting post-1949 history and the small village exhibitions that give great insight into what has made the mainland what it is. Here we have solid takes on the country's internationally recognised museums, such as the home of the terracotta warriors in Xian, the Shanghai Museum and the Capital Museum in Beijing.

But the guide is really fun when it comes to regional oddities, many of which have not been covered in this way before. The guide works for the casual traveller to the mainland, but there are also discoveries here for the seasoned resident.

So much damage was done to the mainland's heritage during the Cultural Revolution that its collectors and curators are only now slowly emerging, and many of the museums in this book remain relatively new and unsophisticated compared to those of the past.

But growing wealth and a flourishing interest in archaeology, history and culture have translated into a rapid rise in the number of museums and the breadth of their collections. The guide is intelligently laid out, with sub-sections and information boxes on historical figures or themes. The country is divided into eight sections, making an easy overview possible. China: Museums means the eunuch cemeteries of Beijing could soon figure alongside more traditional sights such as the Forbidden City on the itineraries of those keen to see still relatively obscure parts of the mainland's heritage.