When the Qing dynasty’s Kangxi Emperor turned 60, in 1713, Beijing played host to a huge festival. A parade of decorated elephants, officials looking officious, drummers thumping dragon drums, parents lifting their children to see, other people not paying the least attention as they negotiate over baskets: so many aspects of everyday life in China could be seen in the streets of the Qing capital that day. We know all this because of two 12-metre printed scrolls that, placed end to end, provide remarkable detail of how the people of that city lived and walked and celebrated and did business more than three centuries ago. There must have been several copies – produced later by artist Wang Yuanqi – but they are rare now, and two are in the possession of the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in the UK. In stages, they are being displayed as part of an ambitious new China Gallery at the Manchester Museum, which reopened in the northern English city last month after being closed for 18 months. The first scroll, augmented by a giant-scale detailed reproduction on the long wall behind, matched with early tobacco pipes , jade hairpins and other suitable artefacts shown in the original, will be unwound by a librarian every few months so different scenes can be seen (and the paper and ink protected from light damage), but at this rate it could be 2024 before we even get to the emperor , who turns up about six metres in. Looking at it while standing in the gallery surrounded by visitors of all ages and backgrounds, I imagine Manchester depicted in a similar way. A modern scroll could start south of the city, then move north along Oxford Road to the Manchester Museum. It might continue past the unique Poetry Library (with its several shelves of Chinese verse) and cut across to pass the famous Factory nightclub on Princess Street, then through Chinatown, to the trendy Northern Quarter. Following the River Irwell westward (which, combined with the Pennine Hills to the east, gives Manchester its excellent feng shui), the scroll could end at Factory International, the £210 million (US$255 million) cultural venue on the site of the former Granada Studios, which doesn’t open until June but which has already contributed to Manchester being named by Lonely Planet as one of the coolest cities in the world. 3 reasons to visit Manchester, home of Morrissey that’s a unique draw This airport-hangar-like structure will host plays, concerts and contemporary art exhibitions, starting with a show by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama , including a huge, immersive inflatable installation titled You, Me and the Balloons . In this imaginary scroll, the people are from all countries and all places and all ethnicities, some with niqab and some in jeans and some wearing both. And in those streets – the imaginary ones and the real ones – there are many Chinese people : British-born, Hong Kong-born, from Southeast Asia and mainland China. Manchester University alone has 10,000 overseas students from mainland China and Hong Kong, giving it the biggest Chinese student population in Europe. The Peninsula London: inside the new UK hotel with Hong Kong touches Which is why the new Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery is so timely. Although, as its curator Bryan Sitch says when he shows me around not long after the opening, “It’s not actually about China”. Instead it’s about how China and Manchester have interacted over the past century and a half. Mostly harmoniously, sometimes not, but with the stories and artefacts collected in the hope that by celebrating the good parts, there will be even more harmony in the future. It started after a gift, in 2017, by Manchester and Hong Kong businessman Lee Kai Hung. A quote from him about cultures living in peace together is inscribed around a wooden moon gate that visitors step through as they enter, passing to their right a cascade of “moon windows” by contemporary British artist Gordon Cheung and seemingly tumbling down into the atrium beyond. The double effect of great circles indicates you are entering a sacred, or at least a special, space. Almost everyone stops at the display containing a giant stuffed deer. Or is it even a deer? In Chinese, the Père David’s deer, or milu, is called the sibuxiang , the “four not like”, because of its face like that of a horse, its tail like that of a donkey, its hooves like those of a cow and its antlers like those of a stag. Its reintroduction to China after becoming extinct in Asia is a good example of collaboration between West and East. Even though it started with a theft. A French missionary, Père David, spotted the species in 1866 in the hunting park of the Qing emperor. He learned that those 200 animals were the only ones remaining in the world and he bribed guards to let him get some live animals to send to France. Which is just as well, because soon afterwards the emperor’s herd was slaughtered during the Boxer Rebellion, leaving the only remaining milu in Europe, mostly in the parklands of the Duke of Bedford, at Woburn, in the UK. In the 1980s, London sent some of them to Beijing as a gift, and today there are more than 10,000 thriving in the semi-wildlands of China’s national parks. The amateur social historian all Hong Kong scholars owe a big debt to As I walk through the gallery I have a strong sense that if I slow down, I will learn stories I did not know. And see ones I did know from a new perspective. There is a large picture that changes colour as I walk past, like those lenticular postcards I loved as a child. The landscape goes from brown desert to lush green and back again. Like all of us, I have become used to this kind of before and after showing the loss caused by greed or climate change or both. 8 London locations from Netflix’s You season 4 that you can visit But this one has time-travelled the other way. In the past century the Loess Plateau, in northern China, became desert. But a World Bank loan in the 1980s encouraged villagers to create terraces and slow down the soil erosion. And as part of China’s determination to reverse environmental degradation, the country has pioneered “sponge” cities , where the concrete and asphalt of pavements and roads are resurfaced to absorb water and arrest flash flooding. A photo shows the Manchester team who went out to learn how it was done, and created a trial site in Gorton, on the edge of the city. Already it’s doing its work, and floods have been reduced. Sitch shows me some of the many emails that reveal how widely he and the team, and their many collaborators in China and from Manchester’s Chinese community, have journeyed, both literally and subject-wide, to find stories for this exhibition. For example, there is a night sky installation, celebrating what is sometimes called “Chinese Valentine’s Day”, the seventh day of the seventh month – usually early August – when two stars, Vega and Altair, are both visible in the night sky, albeit separated by the Milky Way. Hello China: the 4 classes of tourist in ancient times, from emperors down The panels tell the story of Zhinü, the weaving princess, and Niulang, a cowherd. They fell in love, but the Queen of Heaven tried to keep them apart. She not only made them stars but also placed them as far away from each other as possible. A flock of magpies took pity and once a year, the story goes, they make a bridge, which is the Milky Way. When one of the front-of-house staff hears the story, she says, she feels like crying. “You’ll need tissues for this bit,” she says. Before the 20th century, Chinese rulers had many ways of getting men to fight It’s symbolic of course: everything in this gallery is symbolic. Everything wants to say, in different ways, through different objects and stories, that we live under the same sky but we interpret it in different ways. Next door is the South Asia Gallery, with stories about Manchester’s links with the Indian subcontinent. Towards the end of the display there is a Brother sewing machine, probably from the 1950s or ’60s, in a prominent position on its own little table. I’m standing looking at it when an excited young woman, perhaps 18 years old, with a headscarf, begins talking to me. “We’ve got two of those at home,” she says, in a strong Manchester accent. “My grandfather was a tailor and he came from Pakistan. And he used to make suits and shirts. “They’re in the garage,” she continues. Then grins. “I’ll have to tell my mum. Honestly, we never had any idea they were special.” And she dances off to join her friends. I watch them as she recounts the story again and they all look back at the sewing machine with that same wonder. The first Chinese democracy was quite the success. It just wasn’t in China This is sometimes the magic of objects. When institutions like museums celebrate the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, they enable us to celebrate our own lives – the differences that make us special, and the similarities that make us a community. Entrance to museums in Manchester is mostly free, with the exception of some of their special exhibitions. The Manchester Museum is open every day except Mondays. As well as the China Gallery and South Asia Gallery there is also a splendid new Egyptian Gallery. The Whitworth Gallery and the John Rylands Library both have good Chinese collections. The birthday scroll can be seen here in full.