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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The 18 Museums that Never Were

My first reaction on discovering three museums laid out in my iPhone’s Maps app was one of joy – three more museums to discover and blog about! But apart from being a fan of Beijing’s many and varied museums, your favourite blogger has also become a bit of a cynic in the six years he has been living here.

Surely not? Yes, I’m afraid so.
I have learned long ago that wily sellers who want to attract punters through the doors of their retail establishments have learned a super wheeze… Put a notice up saying it is a museum; then when the unsuspecting Joe Public walks in, you show him a couple of interesting artefacts and go to work on the hard-sell.
So when my phone bleats at me about three museums, virtually one on top of the other, I smell a rat.
But as it turns out I’m in the area anyway, visiting a real museum just along the road, so I decide to try my luck.
What I’m not expecting, however, is to find not just three “museums”, but a total of 18… including Currency, Ceramics, Jade, Comics, Playing Cards, Medals, Cigarette Packets … well you get the idea.
By chance I have found myself in Baoguo Temple in the Xuanwu District of Beijing. It turns out this has become a thriving “antiques” market, which has even earned itself the nickname of "Little Panjiayuan". (Regular blog fans of mine will be casting their minds back to something I wrote about Panjiayuan in 2014.)
These “museums” might actually be better described as 'World Currency Exhibition Hall', 'China Stamp Exhibition Hall', and 'China Currency Exhibition Hall', to name but three.
Baoguo Si (报国寺) translates as ‘Serve the Country Temple’; and this Temple Market has become a popular destination for bric-a-brac lovers since it was opened as such in 1997. Panjiayuan Market may get all the hype (usually from travel web sites who surely have never visited it!), but Baoguo Si certainly appears to have more to offer.
Being a mere 50 metres from exit B of Guang’anmennei, you can hardly miss the old temple complex. (Incidentally, across the main road you will see the Caishikou Department Store which now stands on the very spot where Beijing’s criminals were executed during the Qing Dynasty.)
Baoguo Si was a Buddhist temple first constructed in the Liao Dynasty in 1103. During the Ming Dynasty, it was used as a minor palace; but in 1466 during an earthquake, it collapsed. By the early Qing dynasty, it had been rebuilt and turned into a popular bazaar selling books and flowers.
This isn’t as odd as it might at first appear. At that time, the emperor had a policy of treating the Manchus and the Hans differently. This area was where Han people tended to live and work, and in particular for Han scholars to take their national examinations. Finally, a book market emerged before it developed further into a cultural market.
Baoguo Si still keeps the appearance of a temple. It has three halls, of which two – as well as the buildings circling the temple wall – are used either as warehouses or showrooms.
The big difference between Baoguo Si and other “antiques” markets is that it focuses mainly on ancient coins, old paper money and old books. Of particular interest are the ‘lianhuanhua’, small picture books that had their heyday in pre-1949 Shanghai and what many regard as the inspiration for Japanese manga.
This temple faces south on the whole, with the buildings inside the temple constructed on a central north-south axis. It originally had six rows of buildings, but now only four remain. Entering the temple, you see two stone lions standing in front of the first row and two steles on stone turtles situated on the east and west sides respectively. Inside the second row, there is a Palace of Heavenly Kings and two stone tablets at the door of the hall.
In 2006, Baoguo Si was declared a national cultural relics protection site, but hundreds of stalls blocked the area immediately in front of it, and it was said that it would have been impossible for fire engines to make it to the temple should a fire break out. It took four years for the authorities to manage to get rid of these stalls, but finally in March 2015 the last of the stalls was demolished.
Inside the complex every doorway leads to an unexpected discovery. Here, for instance, is a beautiful hand-crafted galleon, together with a wonderful tall vase (which I suspect is anything but antique!).
Another doorway leads to row upon row of stamps and first day covers. A philatelist’s delight...
All the signs are, naturally, in Chinese…
But with the simple expedient of using Google Translate’s image translator, that doesn’t cause a problem. Oh look… here’s another museum!
Hundreds, nay thousands, of coins can be found here…
…And in the same hall can be found more cigarette packets than you’ve had hot dinners.
Jade you’re after? You’ve come to the right place!
Hardly doing a thriving business today, but it isn’t Saturday when according to the local pundits the place is positively heaving.
And if it’s Mao memorabilia you’re after, then you surely need to come here; though I have to wonder at how crisp and undamaged a lot of the “antiques” are.
As for the “Poker Museum”, anything less museum-like I have yet to see; though there are apparently more than 17,000 different card decks here, collected from both China and abroad.
Ah… another museum beckons…
Although it seems well and truly locked, I can peer through the window and gaze on a number of “old” vases, though I’m not sure I’d really want them collecting dust in my apartment. Still, taste is a very personal thing, thank goodness, so I’m sure this “museum” will be able to sell off its wares.
Another sign…
Another translation…
But coin fatigue is already setting in. Outside this latest museum / gallery / trading centre are two kids playing with two pet parrots.
Or maybe they are in the process of setting up a pet parrot museum? Unfortunately there are no more notices for me to point my iPhone at. How much for an (antique) pet parrot, I wonder…