A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

How to be one-up on a Beijing taxi driver

There’s a saying back in old Blighty … if you need directions, ask a policeman, or a taxi driver.

Somehow that doesn’t seem to apply here in Beijing. I mean, you’d expect taxi drivers to somehow know how to get to somewhere as big and public as a museum, wouldn’t you? Errr… no.

The Beijing Taxation Museum that closed six years ago moved to a new venue in Taiyanggong way back in May 2016. Plenty of time for taxi drivers to catch up on their knowledge, you’d think. But when I wanted to visit with a friend of mine, the taxi driver that we flagged down swore blind there was no such museum and let out a string of invective for having wasted his time in stopping him.

Eventually when we promised to pay him the full fare if he took us to the address, whether there was a museum there or not, he relented, let out a long sigh, and drove sullenly there, eventually having to eat humble pie for having ever doubted your favourite blogger and his friend!

The original tax museum was first built in 2005 at the former site of Pudu Temple, but was closed in 2009 when the temple underwent renovations. In 2013, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau initiated rebuilding the Taxation Museum, though it appears they kept it a pretty well guarded secret thereafter.
The new venue covers an area of more than 1,400 square metres spread over two floors, and shows some 3,000 cultural relics, including ancient currency and tax receipts, stamps and assorted ancient tax paraphernalia that date back some 350 years.

Don’t worry that the entrance plaque tells you that the museum is open Tuesday to Friday only. We arrived on a Saturday and were welcomed with open arms! But we did take note of the fact that controlled knives, lighters, compact discs, dangerous articles and pets are not allowed. Compact discs? Wow, how dangerous are they!

The place felt eerily empty. It was like entering a mausoleum. But the joy on the (two) workers’ faces on seeing us was genuine. Our tickets gave a clue… we were the 780th and 781st visitors to have made it through the doors in the three years since its inception. By a quick calculation I work out that this museum attracts fewer than one person every day!

Don’t worry for one moment that all the notices are in Chinese only. The Local Taxation Bureau has thought of every eventuality and for those who are too stupid not to have learned Chinese, there is a free booklet given to foreigners explaining everything you might possibly want to know about the subject. (The fact that I only found this out after I had completed the tour was simply down to the poor bored receptionist having to take a pee break at the wrong moment!)

The museum is dedicated to “spreading the culture of taxation”. No, really!

The red copper relief that greets you in the main entrance hall has been designed to showcase the main elements concerning important reforms and tax systems in China’s millennia-old taxation history. Carved in the middle of the sculpture is the Chinese character for ‘tax’ – 税, written in different forms. The ideogram is made up of two characters referring to delivering crops. In ancient China, crops were the primary form of tax. So the sculpture depicts the “square fields system”, “unification of weights and measures”, “tax layout substitution system”, “one lash method” and the “Chongwen Gate Taxation Administration”.

Dating back to the late Spring and Autumn period, this pottery Fu was a food container used at sacrificial ceremonies. The top of the container bears a painting which depicts Xia Houqi ascending to heaven and obtaining celestial music. Xia was the first monarch of the Xia dynasty (I guess that makes sense!). He set up the hereditary system and founded the first Chinese state. Gong of the Xia dynasty was the oldest taxation system in China and marked the origin of the country’s 4,000 year old history of taxation.

The first part of the exhibition displays taxation history, and showcases the evolution of taxation from ancient times to the present day. In ancient China, tax was mainly raised from land taxes and industrial and commercial taxes. Agriculture served as the foundation of the national economy so land tax was basically an agricultural tax that the state levied on farmers owning land. Here is a cabinet full of land ownership certificates and land tax notices.

In 1899, in order to raise funds for military expenditures, Li Hongzhang and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Qing Dynasty reported to the emperor, suggesting that the government should collect stamp tax, as was common in the West. In 1902 Emperor Guangxu approved a trial implementation and entrusted Japan to print the stamps. But for various reasons the trial was never put into operation. Another attempt was made in 1907 and entrusted to the American Bank Note Company to print tax stamps, but the stamps were not issued nationwide until after the fall of the Qing dynasty.

A number of tax stamps were issue during the Republic of China period …

and after the founding of New China in 1949, stamp tax was collected nationwide.

Naturally in a museum devoted to tax, you’re not going to be very far from a display of abacuses…

… some of which are unusual in their design and beautifully crafted.

One of the galleries is a showcase for vehicle tax certificates and bicycle tax stickers. Displayed are carriage and bicycle tax certificates of the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China as well as bicycle tax stickers of contemporary Beijing.

The history of China’s vehicle licence plate tax started with Suanshangce – a kind of vehicle usage tax levied on merchants – in the Han dynasty. In the late Qing dynasty this kind of tax was already well regulated and became an important source of taxes for local government. At that time the majority of carriage and bicycle tax certificates were labelled with the names of their issuance departments. Typically taxpayers needed to pay 2 yuan for three sets of tax certificates.

In terms of vehicle categories the Qing government primarily levied taxes on horse drawn carts in the Fengtian area during the Xuantong reign so the carriage and bicycle licence plates of the time carried patterns of a horse. In 1951 China began to levy vehicle and vessel usage tax on bicycle owners which amounted to 0.5 to 1 yuan for each bike. In 1986 the country began to collect vehicle tax of 2-4 yuan but this was finally abolished in 2004. Today bike owners don’t pay vehicle tax.

Of course, you won’t be surprised to see calculating machines on display (quite takes me back to the old days)…

And there’s even a Compaq 386 computer (which I well remember lusting over some 30 years ago!).

As for this type setting machine, you have to admire its design and sheer beauty… poetry in motion!

In 1984 Chinese taxation staff began to wear uniforms. These on display date back to 1983, 1988 and 1992 respectively. The other display cabinet shows the uniform used today (dating back to 2007).

As for the official chops used on taxation documents, there is also a small display of these too, as you’d expect.

To end the grand tour of the museum, you come across a display of 390 park tickets, which were a kind of invoice printed separately by different parks. Some of the parks have adopted a policy of free entry, which means some of these tickets haven’t been used at all. Nevertheless they are witness to yet another tax in the history of taxation of the Chinese nation.

We walk out of the gallery to find the receptionist girl waiting to apologise to us that she was answering a call of nature when we came in. Oh, you are British? Oh, you work for the national broadcaster? Oh, please let everyone know that we’d be delighted if anyone wants to make a programme about our museum….

You can almost hear the desperation in her voice… pleeeeeeeeease tell anyone and everyone that this museum exists.

I assure her I will do just that.

Take subway line 10 to Taiyanggong, and leave from exit A. Walk northwest for 700 metres and turn right up Xibahe Road. The road curves to the right. Cross over Taiyanggong Bei street, and the museum is 50 metres on your left. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Beijing’s Best Art Museum?

It has to be one of the best art museums … if not THE best … in Beijing. Tsinghua University’s art museum only opened in 2016, but already it gives all the others a run for their money.

With an overall floor space of 30,000 square metres, and 9,000 square metres of exhibition space, it was designed by Swiss Architect Mario Botta, who is perhaps best known for his design of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the U.S. The over 13,000 items in its collection include 1,400 paintings and calligraphy works, 2,700 ceramic components, 4,600 pieces of weaving embroidery, and 140 items of furniture.

Spread over four floors, it contains both permanent and temporary exhibitions. In common with most museums in China, it is often a good idea to start at the top and then to move down as you tour the building.

On this, my first visit, the first gallery has a temporary exhibition called Americans Abroad – Landscape and Artistic Exchange 1800-1920.

If truth be known, I am not that excited by what’s on display. I usually tend to wonder what would look good on my wall at home, and though many of these pictures are beautifully executed, I don’t think I’d want to stare at any of them every day.

But next door, there’s a permanent exhibition of porcelain, some of it dating back to the Ming dynasty. I’m not that big a fan of porcelain normally, but I certainly wouldn’t mind tucking in to a plateful of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon off a plate like this one from the Qing dynasty from the time of Emperor Kangxi.

Another temporary exhibition – this one called Autumn Charm of Miu Pusun – features 100 paintings of Chrysanthemums.

Without exception, they are all gorgeous and beautifully painted on silk, which somehow brings out a lustre that other bases would be hard put to match.

On next to another permanent exhibition – this one called “Built to Suit”. It features a mix of nice looking furniture and not-so-nice looking furniture – some dating back to the Ming dynasty. Here, for instance, is what is labelled as “Huanghuali wood official’s hat armchair with four protruding rounded ends - Qing Dynasty”.

Particularly nice in this gallery is a display of many of the wooden joints used in making the furniture – which is somewhat reminiscent of a display of joints used in constructing houses and palaces that can be found in the Ancient Architecture Museum.

Maybe the best (permanent) exhibition is the one titled “The Art of Chinese Ink and Brush”. With 90 pieces on display, it contains works by some of my favourite Chinese artists such as Zheng Banqiao, Qi Baishi and this one (Warhorse Whining) by Xu Beihong.

Here’s one of two on display by Qi Baishi, called Reed Crab and Chickens.

Next up is a permanent exhibition of selected silk embroidery. As you walk into this gallery the first thing that you simply can’t fail to notice is a massive rug in the middle of the floor…

It’s a Kesi Buddha with “Infinite Life Buddha” patterns, dating back to the Qianlong Period of the Qing Dynasty. At 695cm long and 385cm wide, it is divided up into different layers – so on the top layer is the sun and moon, on the third are Trikalea Buddhas, on the fourth are 18 arhats and four heavenly kings, and so on.

Most of the cabinets in this gallery feature some snazzy looking waistcoats made of silk or satin – such as this sky-blue satin waistcoat with embroidered edges and Pipa jin from the Qing Dynasty. Can you imagine wearing that to a Saturday night party? Magic!

And here’s a typical bellyband made for children to wear during the Dragon Boat Festival. Surrounded by rocks, the main character, we are told, is a “ferocious” tiger fighting a red snake and a toad. (Actually he looks kind of cute to me.) Apparently it is meant to ward off evil and demons…

Another temporary exhibition is my next port of call. Since 2000, ‘From Lausanne To Beijing’ – an ‘International Fibre Art Biennale’ – has been successfully held 10 times with a strong showing in China, viz. in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Zhengzhou, Nantong and Shenzhen. Apparently there are 68 pieces on show… not really my cup of tea, to be honest, though there are some nice pieces and some quite out of the ordinary.

But my favourite gallery has to be one featuring old magazines going back to before the middle of the last century. It matters not if you don’t understand most of the Chinese. The design of the covers themselves makes for some good viewing…

… my favourite of which is this old radio magazine. The incongruity of a massive antenna towering over the Temple of Heaven is not lost on someone who used to listen to the shortwave broadcasts of Radio Peking back in the 1960s when the highly regulated broadcasts used to start with a quotation from Chairman Mao and use all the clichéd words that were synonymous with what we used to regard as a state gone insane. (But who’s laughing now!)

All in all, then, a visit worth making. New exhibitions are put on regularly. Well worth the effort to go and see!

Take Line 13 to Wudaokou. Leave from exit A and walk due west for a couple of minutes before turning right up Zhongguancun Dong Lu. Walk in a straight line for 5 minutes before turning right and then left onto Guanghua Lu. 

A (very) small temple that is easily overlooked

If you are heading over to Shichahai , perhaps to walk around the lake, there’s a small temple that you might well feel is worth spending some ten minutes inside. The Huode Zhenjun Temple (火德真君庙), according to Wikipedia, was first built during the Ming Dynasty and then rebuilt in 1759 during the Qing Dynasty.

Oh. Not so, according to eventseeker.com and cityseeker.com, that could be one and the same organisation as far as I can see. “The temple was originally built during the Yuan Dynasty in 1605 but has undergone several renovations since then with touches of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture being added into the mix,” they chorus in unison.

english.visitbeijing.com.cn has another take. “The temple boasts a history of more than 1,300 years since the construction in Zhenguan 6th year of the Tang Dynasty (632 AD). It was restored in Zhizheng 6th year during the reign of Shundi in the Yuan Dynasty (1346 AD),” it reports. “During the Wanli Period of the Ming Dynasty, the royal house was bothered by fires in successive years. Hence, the emperor decreed to extend the temple … and then the temple was rebuilt in the 24th year of Qianlong Reign (1759 AD) during the Qing Dynasty.”

Whatever the truth of the matter, the temple has on its east gate (the one from which you now exit the complex), some yellow coloured glaze tiles added to its roof that were granted by Emperor Qianlong.

Since its construction, the elements tempered the temple's grandeur, such that it eventually became a mere shadow of its former self. But luckily, in 1981, it was designated as a historic site by the local government, and the Daoist Association of China raised funds for its renovation. Nowadays it’s one of China’s national heritage sites, albeit that it’s a fully functioning temple, and one that most visitors come to pray in.

This three-legged iron incense burner, which was also known as the "Iron Tripod", was cast in 1784 in Emperor Qianlong's reign. A notice beneath it tells us that "during the recent hundred years around, the tripod had been left in the Embassy of the Netherlands" without any further explanation as to why. Anyway, in 2011 it was returned to China on behalf of the Dutch government and placed here in the Fire Temple.

On the south side is the Hall of the Perfect Sovereign of Great Kindness ( 隆恩殿), also known as the Heavenly General of the Jade Pivot Fire Office ( 玉樞火府天將).

At the north end lies the principle building – the Southern Fire Patriarch Hall, named after the Perfect Sovereign of the Virtue of Fire, who was also known as the Fire God (or Patriarch).

You’ll also find the Ci Hang Deity Hall where Cihang Daoren (Goddess of the Benevolent Ship) – also known as Guan Yin Bodhisattva, is enshrined. "Her sacred power is limitless, thus she can save all the poor on earth and never refuse to respond to a prayer", we are told.

Down the sides of the temple complex are yet more buildings … In the Cai Shen Deity Hall you’ll find three wealth gods. In the middle is the Military Wealth Deity, Zhao Gongming; on his left is the literary wealth deity, Bi Gan and on the right is another military wealth god called Guan Yu. It is said they never refuse to respond to a prayer.

Like many temples, the Fire God temple has its own local culture and customs. The most famous of these is the birthday celebration of the Fire Patriarch on the 22nd day of the 6th lunar month. On that day, emperors used to send officials to pay respect to the Fire God on his behalf.

As you leave the temple, you go through a small but impressive peifang into another courtyard…

… and here along two of the walls is a frieze depicting the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

If you have a mind to (and either can read Chinese, or have a translation app on your mobile) you can read up the characteristics of your particular birth animal.

And that’s about it. Hardly the most awe inspiring temple in Beijing, but very pleasant nonetheless.

Take Subway Line 8 to Shichahai, which is less than 100 metres from the temple. 

An (almost) empty museum in Sihui

At first thought you might think that something that calls itself the Chinese Businessmen Museum would be pretty dry and boring. True, it’s housed in a rather beautiful building (well, impressive on the inside at least!) but that’s not what people tend to come here for.

Mind you, when I say “people tend to come here”, that might be somewhat egging it a bit. The place is practically empty and you can all but guarantee the museum entirely to yourself as you wander around.

Actually the name ‘Business Museum’ is a little misleading; this privately funded museum is a showcase of the Jinshang merchants from Shanxi, who were most prominent in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.

At the reception desk they have obviously had a rethink on what to call the museum – maybe someday they will reprint their entrance tickets to reflect this too.

In days gone by, the province of Shanxi (or Jin as it is often referred to) was the birthplace of numerous successful business people. Their collective businesses became known as ‘Jin Shang’ and their development took place mainly in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Jin Shang merchants set up businesses across China, ‘ranging from silks and satins to garlic and onions’ as a popular saying went. By doing so they contributed to China's economic development. Their businesses even spread as far as Mongolia and Japan and they dominated border trade between China and Russia for almost 200 years.

One problem with this museum becomes clear straight away. The lighting is atrocious and it is often quite difficult to see what is inside some of the glass cabinets, which also reflect light from the windows, making visibility very poor. But there are plenty of nice old photos if you like that kind of thing. Here, for instance, are some camel drivers, both old and young.

Jin Shang merchants initially took advantage of the government policy of encouraging salt dealers and transported salt and grain to China's border regions.

After peasant rebellions ushered in the Ming Dynasty, there was still a military threat from the remnant forces of the preceding Yuan Dynasty. They had fled to the Mongolian grasslands beyond China's northern borders, and this had prompted the new rulers to go in for massive construction of the Great Wall and to deploy about a million troops along it. As time went by, a complete defence system was developed comprising nine military area commands with 13 garrisons operating under them.

During the Ming Dynasty, Jin Shang merchants already engaged in trade with ethnic minority people living in compact communities beyond the Great Wall in the north. In the following Qing Dynasty they became the main traders in those regions, where they enjoyed the trust of the various ethnic minority groups for the high quality of the goods and services they offered and their flexible ways of doing business.

Here are some pictures of ethnic Mongolians…

Apart from business artefacts, there are also displays of other bits and pieces, such as these rings of bells used to place round horses’ necks.

There are also plenty of printing blocks on display, used for producing bills and drafts by the Jin Shang merchants.

Some of the merchants defied an imperial ban on shipping and sailed to Japan on business during the early Ming period. During the Qing Dynasty they organised camel trains and fleets to ship Chinese goods abroad and bring back foreign goods. Through their trade in tea between China and Russia in the 19th century they became international traders and eventually dominated China's foreign trade.

As you can see, the ‘tea road’ extended a long way north and west.

And this is a photo of the end of the tea route… in St Petersburg!

Few may know that the success of Maotai, China's ‘national liquor’, can also be attributed to Jin Shang merchants. The story goes that in 1704 a Shanxi merchant named Guo was carrying out his salt business at a small town called Maotai in Guizhou province. He hired some distillery master workers from his native province, where they produced Fenju liquor, to try out a new business. Together with local workers, these workers from Shanxi succeeded in producing the now-famous Maotai by using locally available spring water, yeast of wheat and Chinese sorghum. Maotai liquor won the golden prize at the 1915 Panama World Expo, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here you will also see an advertising sheet for Laobaifen/Zhuyeqing liquor produced by the Xinhuacun Distillery

During the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1782-1850) Jin Shang merchants created China's earliest banks known as ‘piaohao’ and soon piaohao houses were found in all major Chinese cities forming a financial network so powerful that for a time capital flow on the domestic market was said to depend on the earnings and losses of piaohao houses. The integration of commercial capital with financial capital made Jin Shang known in China and abroad as the most powerful players in China's commercial and financial undertakings. Taigu City in Shanxi province became known as ‘China's Wall Street’.

So you won’t be surprised to see loads of abacus sets on display…

… some of which are quite beautifully crafted…

… and even come in all shapes and sizes.

Also on display are record books of pawned articles – some of them are quite beautifully drawn up too.

There is also a myriad of precious seals of the Jin Shang merchants…

… not to mention these strange looking objects. What could they be, you ask yourself…

They’re actually small scales used by Jin Shang banking firms. Very neat and compact!

Now, all of these displays are on the second floor of the museum building. On the ground floor is a well lit lobby for meetings, complete with Ming-style chairs. How often it is used, I have no idea; but it is all kept spotless by an army of cleaners who far outnumber the (four) visitors to the museum.

Take subway Line 1 to the last station – Sihui East, and leave from exit A. Cross over to the south side of the Expressway, and walk due west for 900 metres. The museum’s entrance is on the south side bordering the river (south gate 2).