It was over five years ago that I first made my way to the Military Museum. Although I was able to get inside the building, all the galleries had been closed, and the only thing to see was a dust-covered statue of the Great Helmsman and a steady stream of visitors finding their way to the loos.
Ever since then, the building has remained firmly locked, though there have been clusters of exhibits littering up the car park… fighter planes, tanks, assorted weaponry… that kind of thing.
But if there’s one thing they like in China it is a good celebration, especially where it can be guaranteed to rouse the visitors’ patriotic sentiment! And so with the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army coming up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to reopen one of the “10 Great Buildings” once again.
Unfortunately I was slow off the mark in replying to an eMail from the HR department offering staff a pre-opening preview, so instead I decided to join the ordinary plebs a few days later, queuing up to be let in. A notice on the railing informed me that with the queue this long, I’d be waiting for at last half an hour.
But your favourite blogger is made of stern stuff, and I shuffled forward with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam, elbowing out the inevitable people who thought they were far more important than everyone else and had a perfect right to push in front of everybody.
For the new refurbishment I couldn’t help admire the new railings that have mini-Military-Museum-motifs embedded every couple of metres. Such attention to detail!
Finally I am at the front of the queue and find myself in front of the “window to collect the tickets area”.
A bored looking girl behind the glass plate demands to see my passport. Sorry. I don’t have it. How about my Foreign Expert Certificate. Will that do?
She grabs it, looks at the cover and throws it back at me before throwing me a ticket and demanding someone else’s ID. Service with a smile. I mouth a grateful xie xie, but I’m pretty sure she misses the irony…
Where to go? Aha! A helpful sign lets me know. We audience members continue to head for the security area and just another ten minutes later I’m through!
Outside the main entrance is a row of tanks that have had a new paint job applied. They look very pretty and everyone wants to have a selfie taken with them. I resist the allure of a tank selfie and head further on towards the main steps.
Just the other side of the entrance is a camouflaged rocket launcher – though I am trying to fathom out where the camouflage would be appropriate. Maybe in a Lego factory?
I step through the entrance and everywhere is gleaming white. Even Mao has had a new paint job applied and none of the dust from my previous visit is in evidence any more.
Around the entrance hall are countless friezes, again all gleaming from a good dollop of white paint. Everyone takes out their cameras and starts snapping away…
And then we are made to take a left turn into a PLA Theme Park – at least that’s the first impression it gives. But there are no soldiers in teddy bear suits to greet us. Just loads and loads (and loads and loads and loads) of signs in Chinese with not a single word translated into English.
It is perfectly clear that no one is in the slightest bit interested in educating the laowais as to how wonderful the PLA is. This is purely propaganda laid on for the Chinese masses; it’s almost as if the organisers are afraid that us foreigners might not understand the subtle nuances and might give the game away by saying out loud something unforgiveable like who are you trying to kid!
Naturally there are endless photographs of the Long March and PLA soldiers being brave and heroic.
And there are plenty of oil paintings, too, to stir the patriotic heart.
And where would the place be without endless pictures of Mao…?
Lest we find this all overwhelming (or maybe underwhelming?) we are warned not to sit stay.
They’ve even taken an idea from the Auto Museum in Fengtai, which shows Batman and his Batmobile crashing through a wall; though all they have here is a very flimsy-looking model tank.
If you were wondering why all the PLA flags have the insignia of a roundel with a red star bearing the Chinese characters for Eight One, this refers to the Nanchang uprising which began on August 1, 1927. The flags shown here represent the PLA’s Ground Forces, the Navy and the Air Force.
There’s also a mock up of three PLA servicemen parading during the handover ceremonies of Hong Kong and Macao… just to remind everybody who’s in charge now.
And while there may not be room for the real thing, there are plenty of plastic models of tanks for kids to gawp at.
Around one of the halls, too, there are bits and pieces that relate to the servicemen who make up the PLA. But don’t ask me what these medals represent. I’m afraid this laowai felt well and truly out of it all.
I walk determinedly towards the stairs in order to reach some of the other galleries, but any thoughts I might have entertained are immediately thwarted. Where have they put all the old tanks, weapons and aircraft bits and pieces that used to be here?
A member of the museum staff points me to this explanatory notice and shakes his head with a loud tut-tut as if I to say how can anyone be so stupid as to think there might be anything upstairs of interest.
I move into a hall full of airplanes; though when I say full, I mean that with a touch of irony. I desperately want to tell everyone not to bother with this display, but to go to the Aviation Museum where they can get to see some 20 times as many planes. But I keep my counsel, for obvious reasons.
As well as the planes, there is what looks suspiciously like a film set boat; and next to it a stirring, patriotic painting appealing to the kind of people who like nothing better than to watch a Chinese action movie, such as this week’s release of Wolf Warrior 2 (which I doubt I will be going to see any time soon).
I walk around the hall, admiring the 1960s vintage H-6 Bomber, which is probably the most impressive in this small display.
But when I turn the next corner, I find that this is where it all ends. Where they have placed all their other exhibits I have no idea. But I have to admit I feel well and truly cheated. One propaganda hall and another hall with a few aircraft hanging from the ceiling? Is that really it? They have spent five years preparing for this?
I head for the exit and export myself henceforth into the crowded car park outside. What a total waste of an afternoon. Next time …. Well, there will not be a next time as far as I am concerned.