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Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Museum Not Suitable for the Faint of Heart

As regular readers of this blog will know by now, China is hardly short of a museum or three. It is said that there are over 230 of them in the BJ area alone … something your favourite blogger is working hard to verify for you.

For those with an enquiring mind, an enjoyment of the frankly macabre and a strong stomach, you can’t really do better while in Beijing than visit the Police Museum - a four-storied building with a floor space of 2000 square metres which contains 1,500 pieces on display out of a collection of more than 7000 articles covering “CSI Beijing” from the end of the Ming Dynasty until the present day.

The museum itself is divided up into four “categories”- the Hall of Beijing Public Security History, the Hall of Criminal Investigation, the Hall of the functions of different branches of Police and the Hall of Police Weapons and Equipment. Sounds exciting, what?

Of course, there are a few significant absences in this relic strewn collection; you won’t find much mention of the Cultural Revolution; and you certainly won’t see any reference to “1989”. But what the hell? I was still intrigued enough one day to get up before 10am so that I could pay it a visit before having to go in to work in the afternoon.

The Beijing Police Museum is housed in the former First National City Bank of New York, a Classical western-style building located in the former Foreign Legation Quarter, notorious for being the battleground of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. It’s only about 4 minutes walk from Tian’anmen Square along a back-lane behind the Beijing Public Security Bureau.

Over the past 100+ years, policemen’s duties have included transportation, fire fighting, maintaining civil archives, safeguarding citizens and investigating, catching and gaoling criminals. So who wouldn’t be willing to fork out 5 kwai for the privilege of taking a shifty through some of their must-see exhibits?

The exhibition takes the visitor through the earliest days of Public Security in Beijing just after the 1949 Revolution and the chaos after the capture of the capital, through to today’s police force, together with some of the equipment used over the years.

In the downstairs lobby is a pretty horrid looking symbolic column known as the ‘Soul of the Police’. It stands 6 metres high and is made of bronze, weighing in at some 5000 kilos. Depicted on it are the sword and shield that are the emblem of the police, placed between a phoenix (symbolising reincarnation) and a Xie Zhi (a Chinese mythical animal which symbolizes law and order). It’s meant to represent the promise of the Beijing Public Security Bureau to provide the people of Beijing with security and peace and be their guide to achieve this. Well, that’s what it says anyway!

The very first exhibit you come across is a photo commemorating the 1949 revolution depicting party officials together with the masses gathered at Tian’anmen to witness the declaring of the Republic by Mao Zedong. The canon displayed with it is an original piece used for firing honorary shots during the ceremonies.

A replica of the key that the Kuomintang general Fuzuoyi surrendered to the liberating army and some cannons used in the founding ceremony are also displayed. And this is one of the problems with this museum – you are not usually told what is real and what is a replica, not that it matters that much I suppose…

If your official history is at all lacking, you have no need to worry. There are plenty of English language explanations – such as this one that tells you that “Before the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, it planted a large number of stragglers and disbanded soldiers, bandits, local ruffians, hoodlums and despots in Beijing left over from the old society…. The public security organs in Beijing smashed subversion schemes one after another while establishing a new administrative system of social and public order and ushering in a situation of unprecedented stability…”

During the Cultural Revolution – now officially regarded as a “national catastrophe” – over 100 Beijing police officers were “wrongly executed” for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. Thousands more were tortured, or lost their jobs – 9,685 in all. And on one wall, eagle-eyed visitors will see there’s a yawning gap among the official portraits of PSB directors from June 1966 to June 1977, as if they simply never existed.

The museum contains just about anything you would expect from a place devoted to the police. In the Crime Detection and Investigation Hall on the second floor, for instance, you’ll see fingerprint manuals, brushes and ink pads, a multi-wavelength fingerprint differentiator and a computerized image formation system.

You can also see a lie-detector, various handcuffs, whistles, cameras, uniforms and a life-size prison cell as well as a couple of police motorbikes that were the main items of interest for a group of school kids who wanted to pose for photographs sitting astride them and throttling up the revs, complete with their own sound effects.

There’s even the original score of the theme music for a TV cops series, donated by the composer.

Naturally the police were involved in the security surrounding the 2008 BJ Olympics and for some reason there is a collection of Olympic torches on display. Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t they be more appropriate in the Olympic Museum than here in the Police Museum? (Maybe someone pinched them and was too embarrassed to give them back?)

With China being such an open country now, it’s perhaps difficult to remember that it wasn’t very long ago that this was anything but the case. Huge areas of the country were off limits to foreigners, and naturally the police made sure that the rules were obeyed.

Just as you are settling down comfortably into seeing exactly what you expect to see in this museum, you come across some displays that frankly you would never see in most museums in the west, due to their pretty gruesome nature.

Perhaps the most shocking is a section on some of the punishments meted out to the bad guys. If you regard yourself as one of the faint hearted, I’d suggest you read no further…

For instance one of the punishments used about 100 years ago involved surgical torture… and they even have a photo of a flayed woman, tied to a stake, whose breasts and thighs have been chopped off (the woman, that is – not the stake.)

Not grisly enough for you? There are plenty of other pictures of explosions (and their aftermath), serial killers, amputations, decapitations and more. How about a photo of eight women’s corpses? Or photos of mass executions with men tied to stakes at the Worker’s Stadium, ready to receive a bullet to the head? Or even a body found on the luggage rack of a train?

Hey they even have some of the actual murder weapons such as this kitchen knife used to dismember a corpse…

If you want to research what a skull looks like after it has been shot at, or split with a cleaver, again you have come to the right place…

Of course, the museum isn’t just about the villains. It’s also about heroes… and a special 8 metre high wall weighing 26 tons has been built to commemorate 58 policemen who died in the line of duty between 1949 and 2000.

But something about this museum got me really puzzled. On the ground floor everyone was taking pictures of anything that moved (or not as the case may be). No problem.

On the second floor I was snapping away at lie detector machines, finger printing techniques, and of course, the hall of nasties. No problem.

On another floor there were glass cabinets stuffed full of semi automatic weapons, pistols, grenades, you name it…it was there. After I had snapped my first photograph of various assault rifles, a policeman came hurrying over waving his arms and yabbering away with every second or third phrase containing the word 没有 (Méiyǒu = No). The implication was clear. And I can’t say I was that surprised. So I smiled graciously and put my camera away.

But the most vehemence was reserved for when I wanted to take pictures of policemen’s helmets from around the world (there was even a pair from the Greater Manchester Police), not to mention a key ring from the Brazilian police force.

Hey… I could photograph dismembered corpses and murder weapons all I liked. But a key ring from Brazil? No way!

I guess I still have an awful lot more to learn about my Chinese hosts…