6/19/16 - 6/22/16
I left Guangzhou last week and have spent the past four days in Beijing. My stint as a guest scholar at the university is over. Now I'm just a tourist -- another one of the tens of thousands of tourists who swarm the streets of Beijing every day. On the city streets and at the various tourist sites I hear Japanese, Korean, English, German, Italian and Spanish, but my Beijing tour guide -- who seems to have a catalogic knowledge of all things Beijing -- tells me that over 95% of the tourists who come to Beijing each year are Chinese citizens, most of whom come for long weekends in the big city. According to the statistics I found, there are nearly 150 million tourists here per year, with under 5 million coming from other countries.
I’ve been spending the mornings and early afternoons with the guide taking me to the major tourist areas and exploring on my own in the later afternoons and evenings. Today after lunch I had four hours alone to spend in the National Museum of China, which is best known for its history of China and Chinese ceramics collections.
The National Museum was formed in 2003 with the merger of the Museum of the Chinese Revolution and the National Museum of Chinese History. The museum building is an enormous rectangular stone (I think) building sitting on 16 acres of land. It sits directly across the street from Tiananmen Square, a short two-block walk from my hotel. The building is huge. Like most of the newish government-owned buildings that I have visited in China – the libraries, the museums, the government office buildings – it has obviously been designed to portray the wealth and power of the Chinese Republic.
I would later find that the themes of federal wealth and power are threaded throughout the exhibits as well.
I walked up to the front of the building. A sign said tickets were available around the corner on the West side of the building. I walked along the west side, looking for a ticket sales area. I saw a number of small doors leading into the building, but steel gates blocked off each one, with a soldier standing in front of each gate. I walked the length of the building twice, but couldn’t find anywhere to get tickets or any doors that weren’t blocked and guarded.
Literally eight million people visit the museum each year, and I couldn’t figure out how to get into the building.
I finally walked up to one of the soldiers and said in English, “Tickets?” He was standing in front of a closed, gated-off door marked “Special Ticket Holders” in English and Chinese. Surely he knew where I could get a ticket.
He bowed, opened the gate, and stood aside, motioning me toward a small exterior door. I thanked him and headed inside to get my ticket. Inside a uniformed museum employee bowed and motioned me up a flight of stairs to the next employee and next set of stairs, who motioned me on to another employee and more stairs, and so on, up and down four flights of stairs.
I found myself at the entrance to an exhibit of life-size wax figures. I walked inside, realizing that I’d skipped the ticket line somehow, and more importantly, considering that tickets to all government-owned museums in China are free, I’d skipped the security line. Later in the day I would look out from the museum and finally see the ticket line outside. (It was huge. How could I have missed it?) There were several hundred people in line, waiting to get tickets and then to go through a strict security check: bags x-rayed on conveyor belts, front and back full-body pat-downs, and anyone with a water bottle required to take a drink to prove, I’m guessing, that it did not contain flammable or explosive liquids.
When I was visiting Guangzhou libraries last week as an honored guest with special V.I.P. treatment from the top library administrators I was allowed to skip security, but I’ve gone through it everywhere else in China I’ve been where crowds gather, even the subway stations. It was obvious that the special ticket holder door guard, and all of the museum employees who had ushered me up and down stairs, thought I was some kind of V.I.P., when in actuality, I was just L.O.S.T.
The wax figures were beautiful and lifelike, but I had no idea who they were depicting, as there were no signs in English. I walked through the wax figure galleries and then left the exhibit still trying to figure out how to get into the main part of the museum. I wandered through a series of corridors until I emerged inside the main hall next to the security screening area. I expected one of the soldiers wearing riot armor to yell at me for walking right past security or at least to ask me to show a ticket, but no one paid me any attention. I again skipped the lines and walked right into the main part of the museum and spent the rest of my day at the exhibits.
I was happy to find that except for the wax figures exhibit, all of the exhibits had signs in comprehensible English, unlike the Guangzhou Museum, where there were English signs all over, but few of them made much sense. (As an aside, bad English translations abound in the tourist areas. In my hotel and in nearby restaurants I keep madly pulling at doors marked “Pull” when they should say “Push” and vice versa. The concept behind the signs is helpful, but the actual signs, not so much.)
I think the lesson of my accidently sneaking into the museum is that there are just so many tourists here that there’s not much point in worrying about one particularly confused foreigner. And we’re all taking pictures of everything, which means that for the most part, we’re really just taking pictures of each other. The sheer masses of bodies obscure the enormous national monuments and historic sites. (Selfies and selfie-sticks are also incredibly popular here, I have noticed. Half of the people keep accidently poking each other with their selfie sticks and parasol handles as they push and shove their way through the crowds.)
It is a world-class museum, definitely worth an afternoon’s visit. The Ancient China exhibit is especially notable, from gallery after gallery showcasing artifacts from prehistoric settlements across China to newer galleries showing off artistic and quotidian objects of modern Chinese peoples. The endless cases of breathtaking Chinese art are also outstanding.
Despite its embarrassing start, my afternoon at the National Museum was a highlight of my time in Beijing. At the museum and elsewhere I learned a lot about Chinese history from my visits to so many national historic sites: the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, the tombs of the Ming Emperors, and more.
Sadly, though, I haven’t learned much about the local culture because I haven’t been out of the tourist areas that much. I much preferred my time in Guangzhou as a guest scholar. There I got to live and work with some of the residents, and I got to form meaningful relationships with several of the graduate students, who were interested in me as a scholar and as a person. Here I am just seen as dollar signs when I walk through the streets. Everywhere I go peddlers call out to me: “Hello, lady!” some so bold as to grab my arm and drag me over to view their wares, insisting that I must buy something. I have had to be downright rude to a few of them to get them to let go of me and have found that a firm “No” and a shake of the head is more effective when delivered in my terribly limited Chinese.
There’s more to Beijing than the tourist areas, of course. It’s a gigantic city, the second largest in China. I was surprised not to see one or more major downtown skyscraper areas as there are in Manhattan or Dallas, but rather tens of thousands of smaller buildings with the bigger buildings dotting the whole city grid, spread out across the city randomly here and there. It’s possible that I just haven’t seen the concentrated skyscraper areas because of the obliterating smog, which starts out grey but thin in the morning and builds to greyer and thicker by evening. Each day the air pollution index reaches the “hazardous” level by about dinner time, so I’ve been spending the evenings in my hotel room reading and editing my many hundreds of trip photos as a method of coping with the air quality situation.
As my days here have been filled with tourist site after tourist site, I’ve had few glimpses of real daily life in Beijing. However, I have seen men gambling or playing games on the street corners in the late afternoons.
I have also visited the neighborhood parks where the older people rest and socialize during the day and where the younger people play, engage in Chinese martial arts, or practice gymnastics.
And I have walked through some of the hidden hutongs (old alleyways), noncommercial areas where people have lived for many generations and where they still live today, often sharing traditional quadrangle-shaped buildings originally meant for one family but now housing four or five because of the real estate hyperinflation that has taken over Beijing during the past decade, with homes now costing tenfold what they did just ten or so years ago.
I have even seen some of the locals engage in small business with their hutong neighbors, selling vegetables out of the back of their cars or using their homes as wholesale soda or souvenir shops.
It is these little glimpses of Beijing that I have enjoyed the most, but they were too few. I was sad to leave Guangzhou. I felt that I wasn’t done learning about the local culture, and I wished I could have stayed longer. When I fly out of Beijing headed for Xi’an tomorrow I’ll feel no sense of loss, only the open-eyed curiosity of a detached tourist moving on to the next city on a long and continuing journey.