A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Numismatists and Notaphilists – look no further!

It’s some time since I visited Beijing’s Ancient Coins Museum… even longer than that that I peered at the coin collection in Beijing’s Capital Museum. But on the basis of leaving the best till last, I have now come to the China Numismatic Museum – the one that anyone with a real interest in currency should head for, eschewing the others.

The China Numismatic Museum (中国钱币博物馆) can be found in Xijiao Minxiang, running off from the west of Tiananmen Square. Housed in two buildings, which were formerly the Commercial Guarantee Bank of China and the Central Bank of China (Peking Branch), it follows the evolution of money production in China over three floors.

There are, apparently, more than 300,000 items in the collection (not just 30, as beijingservice.com would have us believe!), including old coins of different dynasties, gold and silver coins, paper money, coins used by ethnic groups, foreign coins, coin models and currency issued by different political powers in revolutionary times (1937 – 1949). In fact anything that has anything to do with coinage is likely to be found here.

Apart from a central hall, which has an exhibit on the history of the People’s Bank of China, there are also four exhibition galleries, with unique displays such as one which reproduces the process of minting coins …

… and the printing of bank notes.

One nice touch is the provision of sliding magnifying viewers so that you can get close up to some of the rare coins on display.

This museum is not for the faint of heart. You have to be an avid numismatist to get the most from it. Once you have seen your umpteenth old bank note or bao coin, you might be forgiven for getting coin-fatigue.

Nothing is left out, and it is almost like being punched in the face with every single fact you might ever want to know about the currency of China from ancient times to the modern day.

On the second and third floors are two semi-permanent exhibitions covering two main themes: Currency in Ancient Times – the unification of the currency, ancient currency, gold and silver coins, introduction of banks and banknotes; and Modern Currency – now and into the future.

Prior to issuing coins, people in the reaches of the Yellow River and Yangtze River had already adopted seashells and bronze pieces as a medium of exchange. In order to make them more durable, their fragile bodies were coated in either copper or gold.

During the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476BC) the earliest Chinese coins appeared shaped like spades, and they have been mostly discovered in central China. Characters were usually cast on their surface, showing their weight or the names of places.

By the end of the Spring & Autumn Period, knife coins were developed, modelled from something called a Xiao, a bronze tool, used for cutting meat or wood. These coins were mainly found in the Qi, Zhao and Yan states and in northern areas.

By the late period of the Warring States, round coins, similar to a jade disc, were created. They have been mainly found in the middle and western areas of China, as the prevailing coin of the Win State.
And then came a critical moment in Chinese numismatics. Qinshihuang, China's first emperor, not only unified the country, but also ordered the unification of coins by using exclusively the Banliang coin of the Qin State. This round coin with a square hole in its centre became the model for almost all later coins.

The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) saw a new coin called ‘Kaiyuan Tongbao’, which meant the ‘opening of a new era’; and the names of later currencies all carried the character Bao, meaning treasure.

In 1886 the Central Bank Governor, Zhang Zhidong purchased a complete set of minting machines from Britain. Three years later the new machine-made coins came into circulation. They were made of silver and were called ‘Guangxu Tongbao’, ‘Long Yang’, or ‘Dragon Dollar’.

Fourteen years later, Governor Li Hongzhang started making copper coins, and these were rapidly circulated throughout the country as a substitute for the older style standard coins.

As well as the vast array of coins of all shapes and sizes in this museum, there are also numerous bank notes. The first known banknote was developed in China during the Tang and Song dynasties, starting in the 7th century. Its roots were in merchant receipts of deposit during the Tang Dynasty (618–907), as merchants and wholesalers desired to avoid the heavy bulk of copper coinage in large commercial transactions. During the Yuan Dynasty, banknotes were adopted by the Mongol Empire. (In fact it wasn’t until 1661 that banknotes first appeared in Europe – in Sweden.)

The first savings bank in China – Sin Chun Bank of China – was founded in 1905 with its head office in Shanghai. Of course some of its banknotes are on display here too.

The currency system lasted through the Republic of Dr. Sun Yet-sen, with both silver dollars and paper money circulating.

During the occupation, the Japanese issued military notes in its controlled area of China…

In April 1942 Gold Unit notes, originally used for customs settlements, were circuated; but by 1948 the civil war had caused such strong inflation that the government was forced to launch monetary reform and the silver dollars came back into circulation once again. And then a silver dollar note took its place…

With the founding of the People’s Republic came the issuance of renminbi. The first series lasted until May 1955.

The second series of RMB was issued on March 1st 1955 and withdrawn 44 years later. The third series began on April 15 1962 and withdrawn on July 1st 2000.

The fourth series of RMB was issued from April 27 1987 and some of them are still circulating. Specifically the 1 and 5 jiao notes are commonplace.

And the fifth series which began in October 1999 and features Mao on each and every note, is still circulating, albeit that the 100RMB has recently had a face lift to try to stymie the forgers.

Of course, there are special sets of mint coins on display, too…

… as well as their dye stamps.

And there is a small collection of special issue coins, such as these from Inner Mongolia…

All in all, then, an excellent museum, with extensive (but not 100%) explanations in English. If you are an avid numismatist or notaphilist, you will not want to miss it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Beijing’s BEST Car Museum

I don’t know what it is about Beijing’s car museums that appear to attract schizophrenic personalities… At the new(ish) car museum in the southwest of Beijing at Fengtai, the ticket office is located in an old railway carriage. At Beijing’s amazing classic car museum there’s an old American fighter aircraft parked outside. What an aircraft or a railway carriage have to do with cars I have no idea; but I guess they don’t detract from the museums themselves.

I was last here over five years ago, and a lot has changed since then. The museum has had a massive makeover, despite the fact that almost no one ever visits it – probably because they either can’t find it, don’t know of its existence, or it is far too far away from downtown Beijing to make the effort. But believe me, it is well worth making the effort!
Luo WenYou was a former taxi driver from Chengde who had a passion for old Chinese cars; and this museum features many from his collection. (It does make you wonder how a taxi driver could have afforded to buy some of the treasures exhibited, but we are not let into the secrets of a taxi driver’s finances here!)

The museum opened to the public in May 2009 and has about 160 antique and classic cars; and it is China’s only museum that focuses on the collection of China’s domestically-manufactured antique cars, such as the Hongqi (Red Flag). I was actually introduced to Luo WenYou the last time I was here, but he didn’t speak a word of English, so any attempt at conversation started and stopped with Ni Hao… Zaijian!

Many of the vehicles were used by the old revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Peng Zhen, Li Xiannian, Wu Guixian, Fu Zuoyi, and Chen Nande, and this fact itself makes this collection absolutely priceless.

If you are at all in doubt about whether this collection should be referred to as vintage or classic cars, perhaps et97.com can help you out: “Refers to the use of early, now still work the old cars, vintage car has been Classic Car Chinese translation, although it has been used for many years, but not very accurate. In fact, the word should mean old car classic, but the word vintage car has a strong color of personification, make people full of imagination and look forward to this car. Vintage car first appeared in Britain in 1973 one of the cars and vintage car magazine, quickly get the national automobile profession's approval, and the rise of the heat for a vintage car, master with a heavy history.

As well as the aircraft, there are two Hongqi cars being repaired outside the main entrance when I arrive, which is probably just as well since the building looks totally different from when I was here last time, and there is no branding visible.

I find out later that the old sign for the museum has been left collecting dust behind the back of the building, and who knows… maybe one day it will be hung up outside once again?

The place is utterly deserted apart from three ladies making idle conversation in the reception area. One relieves me of the 50 kwai entrance fee and scurries over to switch on some lights as I make my way inside.

The collection is truly breathtaking. The first car to hit one’s eyeballs is a Russian ZIS-110 that belonged to Chairman Mao Zedong…

Within spitting distance is an old Ford Model-T that was owned by Sun Zhongshan (otherwise known as Sun Yat Sen to us lesser mortals) dating back to 1911.

Revolutoniary leader Liu Shaoqi owned this ZIS-115.

The curator, Luo WenYou started splashing out on his collection with this old Shanghai car for which he paid 20 thousand yuan (around $3,000). It dates back to 1970 and could manage a top speed of around 100km/hr.

One of the charming things about this museum is that although all the explanatory text is in Chinese, there are plenty of old photographs of the actual cars themselves being used in parades… such as the Shanghai above.

The pride of the museum is its collection of a score of Hongqi (Red Flag) cars which were known as the Rolls Royce of China. They were used in parades and by the elite of China…

…such as this CA-770W Ambulance used by Zhou Enlai.

Actually the two highlights of the museum are a Hongqi CA770J Parade Car, with the other being a Dongfeng CA71 sedan.

The CA770J parade car (seen below to the left of the CA72), and which is based on the CA770 state limousine, is one of just five examples manufactured from 1965 until 1972, only three of which are known to have survived until today. On the front bench would sit a driver, a secretary and a body guard, while visiting dignitaries would stand holding on to the handle bar which you can just see in the photo. Normally, the left flag pole would fly the Chinese flag, while the right one would sport the flag of the country of the visiting VIP.

One of the unique cars in the collection is this Hongqi long wheelbase limo. It measures 10.08m (or 33ft) from tip to toe and is powered by a 220HP V8 engine.

This museum, however, is not just about parade cars and vehicles belonging to revolutionary leaders. Here for instance, is a Beijing bus, vintage 1957. It could carry up to 75 passengers.

And this is what it might have looked like – albeit that the vehicle on display has somehow acquired a red-and-cream paint job.

Buses not your cup of tea? How about a fire fighting truck dating back to the 1930s?

Or perhaps you are into military vehicles? Here’s a GAZ69 4WD standing beside a Mitsubishi Jeep, an American jeep and a BJ212 Gun carriage …

One of my favourites is the classic VW Beetle. I once drove one of these in California – a highly uncomfortable ride, due to its cramped interior (it was obviously not designed for anyone taller than a midget); but who cannot raise a smile every time they see one?

There’s also a VW Microbus dating back over 50 years – surely a classic of its day…

… not to mention this wonderful old British Austin A30 from 1953…

… or this Austin A70 Hereford.

There’s even a Hupmobile, dating back to 1912. (That year, Robert Craig Hupp was one of only two automakers pioneering the use of all-steel bodies.) Hupmobiles were made in Michigan, USA.

Also on display is a Citroën 2CV…

…not a Citron 2VC! (CV stands for “deux chevaux-vapeur" – literally "two steam horses", which is a reference to the company’s strategy of helping motorize the large number of farmers still using horses and carts in 1930s France.) And “Citron” means a lemon, which given the fact that this car was produced for over 40 years, is somewhat unfair, I think!

There is more… much more to this museum, which really should be on every visitor’s radar. But it is almost unknown, even amongst Beijingers. As I walk around the various displays, the lights behind me are silently switched off, as if to tell me that the electricity bill for the museum is more than they can afford. It reminds me of that well-worn phrase we used to use in England – “would the last one out please turn off the lights”. I know when it is time to leave.

From downtown Beijing up to Huairou – and then finding this museum – takes a couple of hours, although it is not that difficult a ride. From Dongzhimen or XiBaHe, take the 916快bus. It is non-stop for about 45 minutes to CaiGeZhuang, after which you should alight at the third stop – NanHua. Cross the road and take either an H09 or H44 bus four stops to ZhongYingJiDi (the State Production Base of China Film Group). Walk to the traffic lights and turn left for 500 metres along Yangyan Road, and take the second turning to the right along BeichenLu. The museum is 50 metres on your left.