I must have passed it on dozens of occasions, but until recently I was totally unaware that there was a Tibetan Museum of Culture (西藏文化博物馆) on Beijing’s fourth ring road. Yet it has been open since March 2010 as part of the China Tibetology Research Center. Its stated aim is to collect, protect and research the cultural heritage and intangible heritages in Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas.
The museum has over 2,000 artefacts on display, covering historical relics, religious instruments, books and pictures and some of these pieces have English language notices labelling what the items actually are. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of explanation, and unless you do your own personal research before heading to this museum, you are likely to be reduced – as I was – to viewing (in some cases) beautiful objects, but with little idea of what they represent. In particular, anything to do with the history of Chinese rule over Tibet (the so-called ‘liberation’ of Tibet) has little or absolutely nothing in the way of English language explanations.
The exhibits go some way to demonstrating the great changes experienced in Tibet since 1959, when serfdom was abolished, and also aim to show that Tibet was a part of China as far back as the Yuan Dynasty, about 800 years ago. In particular there are scenes showing serfs being exploited by their owners, and how they were liberated over half a century ago.
To get in you need to show your passport or some other kind of ID. Also bags must be placed in lockers at reception before you are allowed to enter. And if you are drunk, dishevelled or incapacitated, don’t even think of going in!
The first hall is dedicated to ‘Plurality and Integration’ and starts off with stone arrowheads and other stone-age tools showing how traces of human activities emerged in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau as far back as the Palaeolithic period. It’s a bit underwhelming to be perfectly honest, especially compared with some of the other stuff on display…
For instance, there is something that is labelled ‘Tibet's Map of Subduing Raksaki’ – which is a map printed on cloth… but that’s all we get to find out as there is no explanation to go with it, and I can find nothing remotely like that when doing an internet search later on.
But I have more luck with a long scroll on woven silk which we are told is a picture of Bunian Tu – the Tang Emperor Taizong meeting Tibetan emissaries…. According to Wikipedia, it is a painting on silk by Yan Liben which is 129 centimetres long by 38.5 centimetres and the original is in The Palace Museum in Beijing.
The story goes that in the seventh century, Tibet was growing stronger and stronger. “In 634, Songtsän Gampo sent an envoy to Chang'an, the capital of the Tang dynasty, to propose a marriage. Emperor Taizong of Tang accepted the proposal and decided to give him his daughter Princess Wencheng in marriage. In 641, Gar Tongtsen Yülsung, the Prime Minister of Songtsän Gampo, came to Chang'an to accompany the princess back to Tibet. She brought with her many vegetable seeds, tea, books, and craftsmen which played a very important role in the Tibetan cultural and economical development.”
.. or an edict by the Ming Emperor Zhengtong ‘sent to the master Karmapa’ in 1445, written after the latter's agent had brought holy relics to the Ming court. Zhengtong had the following message delivered to the Great Treasure Prince of Dharma, the Karmapa: “Out of compassion, Buddha taught people to be good and persuaded them to embrace his doctrines. You, who live in the remote Western Region, have inherited the true Buddhist doctrines. I am deeply impressed not only by the compassion with which you preach among the people in your region for their enlightenment, but also by your respect for the wishes of Heaven and your devotion to the Court. I am very pleased that you have sent bSod-nams-nyi-ma and other Tibetan monks here bringing with them statues of Buddha, horses and other specialties as tributes to the court..”
(It is at this point that I start to stop worrying about the meanings behind half the exhibits, and concentrate instead on their artistic merits.)
Here, for instance is the seal of the 5th Dalai Lama that is made of iron and sandal wood…
And this is what the seal print looks like…
There’s also an inscribed board issued by Emperor Qianlong which was sent to the Potala Palace:
There’s a cabinet that gleefully tells us that it contains various instruments of torture in old Tibet
Also on display is Chaig Kai-shek's Teefram to Reting Rinpoche on rewarding him for living up to the Central Government's trust. (Reting Rinpoche was a title held by abbots of Reting Monastery in central Tibet. Historically, the Reting Rinpoche has occasionally acted as the selector of the new Dalai Lama incarnation.)
The ground floor is full of such displays; but wait… there is an upstairs as well. The staircase has a lovely handrail – or rather the handrail is covered by a rainbow-coloured cloth which makes it highly attractive, while also encouraging the eye to take in the ceiling above.
The first of the upstairs galleries is called ‘A Brand New Era’. It has loads of historical photos, but if you don’t speak Chinese, you’d better get someone who can to accompany you, as everything from here on in is in Chinese only. Here, for instance, is a photograph of the 14th Dalai Lama meeting Chairman Mao, but this is all the information we are given…
And here’s a tableau showing the signing of the agreement of the Central People's Government and the local government of Tibet (known as the Seventeen Article Agreement) in Beijing on May 23rd 1951.
There’s also an exhibition on the ‘Reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhist Living Buddha’ – but again, if you were hoping to get any insights into what a living Buddha is all about, you’d be better off reading Wikipedia before you make your visit.
Here is a Tangkha Chairman Mao in a golden frame which was offered by the 14th Dalai Lama to Chairman Mao in 1954. (A ‘Tangkha’ painting is a traditional form of Tibetan Buddhist art. Learning this craft can take three years and is part of a monk’s education.)
And here is another Tangkha – ‘Light Illuminates All over Tibet’ – presented to the Central People's Government by the 10th Panchen Erdeni in 1954.
In case you were wondering (as I was), both the Dalai Lama and Panchen Erdeni were the great disciples of Tsongkhapa – the founder of the Gelug Sect. The successive Dalai Lama and Panchen Erdeni are the teacher and the disciple for each other. They are bound up with each other, but also distinguished from one another. Well, that’s what the blurb on the web tells me anyway!
Also on display is a mock-up of a typical Tibetan house, kept spotlessly clean…
And this is a typical kitchen arrangement… a lot bigger than the meagre kitchen in my Beijing apartment!
There is also a pair of beautifully carved Tibetan doors in the main downstairs foyer area.
And there are also cabinets displaying what the living Buddha typically wears …
But maybe some of the most stunning views can be seen in the photos lining the upstairs walls, with Tibet’s beautiful mountains shown at different times of day. They are really lovely, and if anything clinches my decision that I’d love to visit this land, these photos have surely grabbed my imagination. Watch out Lhasa… I’m on my way!
The Tibetan Cultural Museum can be found at 131, 4th Ring Road. Take the subway to Huixinxijiebeikou on Line 5, exit A. Cross over the pedestrian bridge to the north side of the ring road and head west for about 200 metres.