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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Coming Face to Face with a Scholar and Thinker

Could it be that your favourite blogger has finally found what must be the most boring museum in the whole of Beijing? I’m not talking of the Watermelon Museum; or the Museum of Tap water; not even of the Museum of Phone cards. No, no… this one is in a league of its own. I’m talking of the Jin Tai Museum.
Never heard of it? Well, I’m not surprised. Neither has anyone else. I defy you to ask anyone who has lived in China’s capital for more than 5 minutes whether they have heard of it, let alone know where it is, and I am pretty confident you will get a shrug of the shoulders.
I mean… try looking it up on the web. The Beijinger has it marked a good three minutes walk away and on the wrong side of the main road from where it actually is. (It’s actually inside Chaoyang Park - that crenulated white blob on the map vertically due south of the West Gate 1.)
Cityweekend has it marked even further away – a good five minutes walk and again on the wrong side of the main road.
Placesonline goes one better – a good 45 minutes walk away…
But at the end of the day, I guess it doesn’t really matter. You’d have to be pretty desperate to want to visit this museum, that’s for sure.
So why, you may be asking, am I going out of my way to see it? Well, it’s like this. The Azerbaijan Embassy, in the spirit of it being 20 years since they established diplomatic relations with China, decided to donate a sculpture of Nizami Ganjavi to their Chinese hosts.
No, come on now. It’s no use pretending you have never heard of Mr Ganjavi! According to the Azerbaijan Embassy blurb, “The great Azerbaijan poet Nizami Ganjavi is one of the most brilliant masters of world literature. His masterpieces are the best achievements of artistic genius of mankind. The measure of Nizami’s art and talent is so immense that he became a son of humanity.” Oh THAT Ganjavi! Oh, of course…
Anyway, this must be a perennial problem for governments the world over. What do you do with sculptures of Ganjavi and his ilk when presented with one from another nation with whom you have such long standing and amazingly close ties. Well, what else? You put it in a museum!
And so, dear blog reader, you finally understand. Jin Tai appears to be one of those places in which Beijing can place such unwanted gifts and pretend to be pleased with what they have been given. Honour is satisfied all round and everyone can carry on ignoring the place!
Me? I was asked if I would like to come along to the grand unveiling, meet some people and nibble a little something on the side. Who could refuse such an invitation?
At the appointed hour, clutching a sheaf of assorted maps, I emerge from the 419 bus that has had the perspicacity to pick me up from right outside my place of work just a half hour previously. I see a line of ambassadorial cars with their flags straining on their masts in the icy wind, and follow them on the basis that they probably have a better idea where they are going.
I meet an old friend who, like me is shivering in the cold weather and we go inside where I am introduced to more people. Around a reception room are pictures of, presumably, Azerbaijani sites and relics, though I don’t see anyone looking at them the entire morning. The Azerbaijan Embassy PR people are probably wondering why they even bothered to make the effort.
A new found Australian friend and I are offered glasses of coke and 7-Up which, in the absence of a nice hot coffee, are accepted; but the problem is where to place one’s empty glasses once the beverages are suitably quaffed. A handy sideboard appears to be the best solution, though I read up later on the web that this is one of the museum’s prized exhibits…
We’ve hardly had time to swap visiting cards when there is a general call. Would everyone be pleased to go outside to witness the grand unveiling of the sculpture? Amazingly there isn’t a mad stampede to the door, though we all traipse outside to do our collective duty.
It’s only now that I notice that this section of Chaoyang Park backs on to the new media centre that is being built – a beautiful building that I have been watching slowly rising up over the past year.
I also notice that the path is lined with sculptures – well, maybe lined is putting it a bit strongly – but there are certainly around half a dozen. Here’s one of the Mahatma. It was made by the director of the museum, Yuan Xikun, of whom more in a moment…
Right now, though, the tension is mounting. Everyone is straining forward lest they miss a single word of the proceedings.
A spokesman for the Azerbaijani embassy reads a prepared statement while one of the guests looks on in admiration… (Actually I discover a short while later he is a fellow ambassador of some other ex-Soviet republic.)
And lest some of us are a little rusty on our Azerbaijani, this girl gives a running translation when she is allowed to get a word in edgeways…
Listening to every word is a line up of ambassadorial guests from Afghanistan, Georgia, various other ‘istans etc while the guy on the right – the one who looks like he has had a hearty breakfast before setting out into the cold morning air – is Mr Azerbaijan Ambassador himself. The crème de la crème of ex-soviet satellite ambassadors.
I get to hear the Azerbaijani national anthem for the first time in my life – a pleasant ditty, though only the ambassador is mouthing the words to this catchy tune… until the third verse, that is, when he either forgets the words or gives up the unequal struggle. The Chinese anthem follows and everyone stops talking and gives it the respect it undoubtedly deserves. The official translator girl sings along to it, obviously being well schooled in the lyric, without even looking at her prompt pad.
As the inspiring words die away, a bevy of China’s youth come to lay flowers at the base of the new sculpture, though why their mums never thought of equipping them with gloves on a day like today beats me.
Naturally everyone wants their picture taken with Ganjavi to record this momentous date in their diaries.
It’s now I am able to get a closer look at the sculpture and discover that not only was he a Great Azerbaijani poet, but he was a scholar and a thinker too! I make a mental note to alter the contents of my visiting cards next time they are due for a reprint. “Brian Salter – broadcaster, journalist, scholar and thinker”! It has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
My thoughts are interrupted by an army of cleaners walking towards us stragglers, ready to tidy up the empty sweetie wrappers and other debris that might have been left by the ambassadorial staff. Or maybe they can’t wait to set eyes on the scholar and thinker and son of humanity.
I wander back into the relative warmth of the museum where I learn that the curator / director / most regular visitor, Yuan Xikun – that gifted sculptor I mentioned a moment ago - was born in Yunnan Province in August 1944. According to the blurb, he established the Jin Tai Art Museum in 1995, “the first private-owned museum where over 100 international cultural exchange activities are held praised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture.”
Yuan Xikun is a “Member of the 8th, 9th and 10th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and later Member of the 11th Standing Committee of CPPCC. Member of the Standing Committee of the All-China Youth Federation, Curator of Jin Tai Art Museum, Honorary Chairman of China Association of Collectors, Researcher of the Graduate School of the Chinese Arts Research Institute and Honorary Member of the Russian Academy of Arts, Recipient of the National Labor Medal of May Day”. Makes you wonder how he gets the time to do any work.
Someone has thoughtfully placed a posy of three yellow roses on a table in the entrance, which brightens up the place immeasurably.
A corridor leads off down to the back of the building. Many of the assembled guests, including some of the ambassadors, are making their way down there rather than going into the main reception hall. Could there be some priceless artefact worthy of attention, I wonder? No, it turns out that the cold weather has had a predictable effect on ambassadorial bladders and they have just been to ‘inspect the plumbing’.
I wander up a flight of stairs, seeking inspiration and find myself in a gallery of busts and pen and ink drawings. More of Xikun Yuan’s work. It appears he was invited to draw ink-and-wash portraits for 152 foreign dignitaries, who were then asked to sign and approve said drawings.
According to yet more blurb on this paragon of Chinese art, his sculptures of international celebrities have been collected and placed by the governments, international organizations or museums of Japan, Greece, Russia, the United States, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Bulgaria, Kenya, etc. His sculptures have even been given as state gifts to Japan, Greece, Russia and Slovakia by Chinese state leaders on their visits. (So they can hardly complain at the Azerbaijanis taking a leaf out of their book!)
Xikun Yuan’s portraits of world leaders include such notables as Gloria Arroyo, Luciano Pavarotti (since when was he a world leader?), Simon Bolivar, Boris Yeltsin, Yasser Arafat, Pervez Musharraf, Kofi A.Annan and Fidel Castro.
But wait – what have we here? A picture of Lucifer himself?
Oh no, it’s Tony Blair. Mind you…..
I have to say if I had a choice of the smirking Blair brat, or this pen and wash of a lion, I’d go for Mr Leo any day.
But I hear noises from afar and hurry back to the excitement of the main reception area. Yes, Mr Ambassador is giving his long awaited speech – no doubt extolling the virtues of Chinese-Azerbaijani friendship and how the two countries can benefit from such close mutual cooperation. (Later when discussing my exciting morning with a Chinese work colleague, she admits she has absolutely no idea where Azerbaijan is; but let’s not dwell on that.)
The speeches are followed by rousing renditions of Chinese songs by a youth group, while the assembled media snap away hoping to get a picture of something a little more inspiring, perhaps, than the ambassador’s speech.
And finally as the last notes die away, the assembled multitude is able to tuck in to what it appears most came for in the first place. A selection of Danish pastries and sandwiches, by now curling at the edges. Duty has been seen to be done and we can get on with real living once again.
With sticky fingers and a new collection of visiting cards to add to my useful contacts box, I set off once again into the cold fresh air outside. As the ambassadorial limousines sweep past me I head on up the road to the 419 bus stop. It’s been a grand morning!