A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The most ‘sprawling imaginable kitsch’ museum? I don’t think so!

There’s a large classical building facing the Tonghui River at Gaobeidian, itself overshadowed by an upmarket apartment block owned by Marriott. Many people simply go past on the bus giving it hardly a second glance. But inside is one of the most impressive – dare I say it, flamboyant – collections in Beijing.

Welcome to the China Red Sandalwood Museum (中国紫檀博物馆)

The museum is the first and largest in China dedicated to Red Sandalwood artwork. Inside there are around 1,000 pieces on display, including some precious artefacts from the past 500 years, spread over some 10,000 square metres. It is said that the total investment was over 200 million RMB (or 20 billion RMB, if you believe Wikpedia).

Sandalwood is a hard wood, which makes it excellent for making furniture. But, as the blurb tells us, preserving red sandalwood carvings is not easy, as they are sensitive to heat and humidity and must be kept under constant control.

The museum was the brainchild of Chen Laiwa, who is a member of the CPPCC, and who also happens to be an entrepreneur with a personal fortune of around 38 billion RMB. In 2014, Forbes ranked her as one of only 19 self-made female billionaires in the world. She is the founder and chairman of Fuwah International Group, one of Beijing's largest commercial property developers, which is where she made most of her fortune.

Many have been unkind in their description of this woman, the most vitriolic (that I have found) being in a blog on medium.com which describes the museum as “the most sprawling imaginable kitsch, it is principally a temple to the ego of its owner, Dr. Chén Lìhuá …. When she opened the museum in 1999 she was said to be the richest woman in China, in the mould of Imelda Marcos.” Ouch!

Others describe her in more glowing terms: “Chen is known for her social responsibility and philanthropy. Fu Wah donated 130 million yuan for disaster relief in 2005 and 265 million yuan in 2004.

The collection is housed across four floors of this beautiful building, and by anyone’s standards it is absolutely breathtaking.

As you enter, the first thing you see is one of two very large cabinets carved with dragon patterns, that even have dragons on the gold hinges. They are copies of cabinets found inside the Forbidden City.

The most impressive thing on the ground floor, however, is best viewed over the balcony on the second floor – an exact 1:1 replica of the Throne of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, which is housed in the Palace Museum and which is made entirely of red sandalwood covered with gold foil.

Also on this floor, a stunning 1:5 model of the Corner Tower of the Forbidden City weighing 6 tons, and standing three metres tall. Constructed with traditional techniques of tenon and mortice joints, it consists of 3-layered eaves, 6 gable and hip roofs, and 72 ridges.

In yet another corner of this floor is a screen and throne, which would have been used only by the emperor, empress or imperial concubines and which would have been found in the main hall of the palace or in the main room of the bedchamber. "They look especially solemn and dignitly" (sic), the accompanying plaque says!

Not all the furniture in the museum is made of sandalwood, red or otherwise. Here, for instance, is a set of furniture inlaid with mother of pearl that has been made from huali wood (also known as fragrant rosewood). The table top and the back of the armchairs are decorated with marble.

The second floor of the China Red Sandalwood Museum focuses on many precious screens, and more thrones with exquisite carvings. Here’s an ebony screen that folds into eight components which feature maid motifs painted on silk.

Some of the detail carved into the wood furniture is amazingly detailed and dead impressive!

And if you are into display cabinets, these two placed side by side are simply gorgeous.

Other furniture is less wow-defying, though I doubt you would complain about having one of these in your bedroom. This is an ebony tapered cabinet with lattice doors, having four rounded-corners and which is typical of the Ming dynasty.

There’s also a mocked-up bridal chamber on show, with a red sandalwood circle gate canopied bed taking central place, together with a mahogany lamp, dressing table, long table, square desk and coat hanger. The bed and cabinet are copies of originals in the Forbidden City.

This pair of book cabinets is made of red sandalwood with inlaid boxwood. There are a thousand words carved onto the front of the cabinets. The story goes that Emperor Wu (464 – 549AD), founding emperor of the Liang Dynasty, randomly picked out 1,000 words from a work by a well-known calligrapher called Wang Xizhi. He then commanded one of his officials to compose the 1,000 words into an article which should also rhyme. The result incorporates astronomy, geography, economy, politics and culture and is known as the "Concentrated Encyclopaedia".

On the third floor is where visitors can park their situpons for a while, but this being China, you won’t be surprised to see whole families taking out their well-prepared picnics and munching away. Really, is there any other nationality on earth that would even consider going to enjoy a picnic inside a museum?

But back to the collection. Here’s a very cute looking canopy bed with circular entrance made of huang huali wood.

And if it is screens you are after, here’s a double sided screen made of amboyna wood (which is also known as Burmese rosewood or Narra – the national tree of the Philippines). It features lions playing with balls carved in relief at its base.

There are so many pieces of furniture that it is often difficult to know if they are originals or 'simply' original copies! Many of the plaques giving information on the items are curt in their descriptions. Here’s a mahogany cabinet with a flower motif, which we are told “may be rated as a fine work of the art". Hmmm

On the third floor, there’s an amazing 1:8 size model of a Beijing courtyard. The complex consists of two parts – the front functioned as a working area for political activities and the back was a traditional dwelling. The entrance gate is built in the centre of the quadrangle with screen walls on either side. The detail is considerable – you can even see stones used for getting on or off a horse and pillars for tethering it. This was the first time an attempt was made to build a model of a Prince's residence in red sandalwood.

Another screen – this time in teakwood, features a Great Wall motif, which, we are told, "reaches the higher level of art". (I am left wondering which of the previous exhibits were of a lower scale only.)

Nearby is a gilded 'arhat' bed, decorated with lotus carvings. I don’t know how comfortable these things would have been to lie on, but it certainly looks impressive.

One thing that is certainly impressive is a root carving of the novel "Journey to the West" in camphor wood. (In the novel, Monk Xuanzang in the Tang dynasty was accompanied by his three disciples on a journey to India).

The detail on the 2-metres high carving is quite extraordinary.

Another outstanding model is that of the Yongdingmen (永定门), a 1:10 likeness of the former front gate of the outer city of Beijing's old city wall. It is made from red sandalwood and Chinese Wing-nut (Pterocarya stenoptera).

Originally built in 1553, the original Yongdingmen was dismantled in 1957 to make way for Beijing’s new road system, but was reconstructed at the site of the old city gate in 2004. It used to be used by emperors whenever they left Beijing’s outer city.

Finally, the museum’s ‘Pièce De Résistance’ on the fifth floor is a red sandalwood model of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest in the Temple of Heaven. This 1:10 model weighs 10 tons and is the largest red sandalwood artwork in the museum.

Overall, this museum is an amazing collection in which superlatives are out-trumped by yet more superlatives as you wander around each floor. It’s well worth a visit in my view and certainly ranks as one of the best museums in Beijing. You certainly won’t be disappointed!

To get to the museum, take the Batong Line to Gaobeidian Station, and then walk westwards along Jianguo Road for around 400 metres.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

If it’s fake antique furniture you’re after, you’ve come to the right place!

I’ve expounded elsewhere about what I think of the area in south east Beijing known as Gaobeidian. Contrary to what some obviously over-paid adman thought up, it most certainly is NOT “The Most Beautiful Village in Beijing”.

But if you are after getting for yourself a bit of classical Chinese-style furniture, then this is the place to come; and although furniture shops can be found right across the entire area, you would probably be best heading for “Chinese Traditional Furniture Street”… though ignore the traffic signs for it if you don’t want to end up thoroughly lost!

As a matter of fact, once you get there, the grand archway at the very start of the 2km long, 8-metre wide street tells you its name is actually “Classical Furniture Street”, though I guess that comes to the same thing when it’s translated from the original.

Here you will find 200, or 300, stores (depending on which web site you happen to believe) selling reproductions of Ming or Qing tables, opium beds, chairs, benches, stools, drums, garden ornaments or whatever.

You simply cannot find a better place in the whole of Beijing to source genuinely fake antique furniture. (They even spray or paint aging varnish on the objects in the street in full view of their customers.)

Anything that is not on display can be custom-built for you, whatever your taste. Many shops have their showrooms at the front with the workshops at the back.

beijinglandscapes.com would even have us believe that “The classic furniture markets combining tourism fields lured all the furniture fans from over ten countries. The collectors and merchants come here leading this street to be a cultural transmission land.” Well, I mean, how could you even think of resisting such a description?

Hey, you don’t even need to waste your time by going all the way to Xi’an to get yourself a terracotta warrior, since they make them and sell them here too.

Some of the furniture is, of course, better made than others. These display stands, for instance, look very nice from the opposite side of the street, but if I knew the Chinese for ‘rickety’ I’d probably over-use that adjective in this sentence. (OK it's something like 摇摇晃晃的 from what I can work out!)

This is not a place in which you need to curb your aspirations. If you want a giant pixiu, for instance, to grace your mansion, then once again this is the place to come.

Most people have slightly more modest expectations, however, and the place is crawling with dragons, lions, turtles, fish and more pixiu from which to choose.

Or perhaps you are more into having dragons curling their way around pillars. No worry. They are here by the dozen!

If, like me, you are more into IKEA stuff with which to grace your apartment, then think of this street as a massive walk-in museum of things that could have been Ming or Qing. (Mind you, beijingcopat.com leaves yu in no doubt what it thinks of that… “Ugly Western inspired furniture abound in Beijing and the city hosts the second largest IKEA in the world” it reads without even pausing for breath between the two clauses!)

As a huge number of items in Chinese museums are actually reproductions – which the curators somehow forget to tell you, then at least you won’t feel disappointed or cheated if you come to these stores simply to look around and take in the atmosphere of the good old days of China.

Getting there is relatively easy. Take the Batong line to Gaobeidian station (which is not on Line 1 as beijingrelocation.com tells you; and especially not Line 8 as beijinglandscapes.com would have you believe!). Leave from subway exit A3, walk westbound for 100 metres, then turn left and keep on walking for about 800 metres. 

An almost totally forgotten museum in Gaobeidian

Gaobeidian is one of those parts of Beijing that I frankly dislike. I’ve written about it before and I don’t need to go in to the details; but it never gets any better for me. Except…

Except, sometimes it does. Not in the sense that I actually start to like the place – I don’t. But every so often it turns up something unexpected.

Take, for instance, the ‘Beijing Gaobeidian Treasure Park of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Arts’. I had never heard of it. But fate saw to it that I stumbled across this rather nice place when I took a wrong turning expecting to be where I wasn’t, if you get my drift.

A lot of it is still under renovation – or construction depending on your definition – but what they are doing so far is quite attractive. What caught my attention In the middle of that sign board were the words ‘Museum of Tables of Imperial Examinations’ (科举匾额博物馆). A museum? A museum of tables? Hmmm.

My instant translator app tells me that the Chinese name actually means ‘Imperial Examination Board Museum’. My curiosity is piqued. I turn to my iPhone map and yes, there in black and white, is something called ‘Imperial Examination Museum’. What am I waiting for?

I head on down the road, and come across a rather strange looking entrance to what looks a little like a museum inside. The sign on the door says there is a 40 kwai entrance fee. A bell pings as I go through an infrared beam. But no one comes to see who is there, and having called out a couple of times, I venture in.

Not a table in sight. And almost nothing in English to tell me where I am.

I search on the web for any information about the museum. Baike.com has something written in Chinese that translates via Baidu as “Beijing Lizhi Tang imperial examination Museum, which is the Beijing imperial examination plaque Museum, collects more than 500 pieces of wood and stone plaque. Among them, there are nearly fifty pieces of stone inscriptions, which are the first in China. There are more than 40 plaque inscribed by thirty-two top scholars in Ming and Qing Dynasties, thirteen inscribed plaque inscribed on the top of the list, and twelve inscribed plaque inscribed on flowers. The most famous plaque in the years is Ming Yongle, sixteen years ago, five hundred and eighty-nine years ago. The imperial examination gate collected in Yuan Dynasty is the treasure of our town hall.” (sic)

Clang! Not ‘tables’ but ‘tablets’! Or ‘plaques’ to you and me.

On the walls is a smattering of old (dusty) photographs related to the imperial examination system of China that goes back over two millennia and whose influence pervades Chinese cultural values even to this day.

In one dirty cabinet is a pair of carved wooden decorations – beautifully done.

China was the first nation to appoint on merit rather than patronage; and in dynastic times, the path to wealth was by getting an appointment to a well paid government post as a civil service official. These posts were open to anyone who could pass the daunting exams.

Some candidates apparently tried to pass the exam throughout their lives, something that was not considered in the slightest bit strange, it seems. In 1889, 35 candidates from Anhui province were over 80 years old and 18 were over 90! If someone took the exams throughout their adult lives but failed, they were awarded the degree at the age of 80. And if a scholar survived to sixty years after graduation the Emperor would pay for a feast in his honour.

Here’s a picture of Emperor Wen Di of the Sui dynasty, who reigned from 581 to 604. In 583 he abolished the system of entrenched families holding local office by hereditary right and replaced this by a bureaucracy answerable to the throne. A method of selecting new men by examination and recommendation was devised.

Empress Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. In 702 she set up a martial arts examination, and from then on the imperial exams began to have two types – literal art exams and martial arts

Here is a print of a painting of the final round of a state-level exam in the Song Dynasty

And here is Wang' Anshi, known for his reforms aimed at cutting government expenditure and relieving the Northern Song dynasty of some of its organizational duties. Wang's reform agenda was not the first attempt at reducing the cost of the prodigious number of superfluous state agencies, but like earlier projects, it was doomed to fail because too many interest groups resisted his reforms.

Eventually, in 1905, the Empress Dowager CiXi abolished the imperial examination system altogether. (Have you noticed that in her photos she always seems a miserable old so-and-so!)

Once you are out of the main entrance display, there is a dishevelled garden of sorts at the back.

Some of the carved stone work was obviously impressive in its day, but time and neglect have combined not to be kind to what’s remaining.

There are outbuildings along the three remaining sides of this garden, and this is where you will find the main display of the signboards that once hung over house entrances to celebrate the imperial examination graduates living within. As often as not, this was a gift of fellow citizens basking in reflected glory upon their home town by the candidate’s success.

These plaques are everywhere, propped against walls, hanging from the ceilings and stuck in every available nook and cranny.

One of the outbuildings displays all of them hanging from the rafters, which I guess is somewhat in line with how they were meant to be viewed in the first place.

This forgotten museum is not going to appeal very much to those who don’t speak Chinese and/or don’t have a developed appreciation of calligraphy. But as something totally out of the ordinary, it should appeal to those of a curious mind.

It’s about 20mins walk almost due south from Gaobeidian on the Batong Line, but better is to take Line 1 to Sihui, and then to catch the Zhuan 167 bus and travel 6 stops to WenHuaXin DaJie Beinzhan. Walk straight on for 100 metres before turning right, and you’ll find the museum on your left 300 metres after that.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Something in Xi'an that is definitely worth seeing...

Everyone visiting Xi’an always makes such a song and dance about going to see the Terracotta Warriors. Personally I would advise anyone going to Xi’an to make sure they leave enough time not only to see the old city, but best of all to see the area around Dayanta.

Dayanta? That’s what's known as the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, an iconic symbol of Xi’an. And the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is part of the Tang Ci'en Temple Site Park. Together with a number of squares and gardens built to present the grandness of the pagoda and the cultural spirit of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907), this is an area not to be missed.

To the north is the famous North Square with a spectacular musical fountain; to the east are the Tang Ci'en Temple Site Park and the East Garden; to the west lies the West Garden; and to the south the South Square sits in front of the main gate of the Da Ci'en Temple.

The local maps show the overall layout, though I always have difficulty in understanding why people insist on putting south at the top and north at the bottom!

At the tip of the northern end, are so-called “Culture columns of the Tang dynasty”, seven metres tall, and 1.5m in diameter. They are made of red sandstone and have auspicious patterns and images on them which are found in Buddhism. There are also huge floral displays, though whether these are an all-year-round feature I simply don’t know.

On the two sides of the area, two pedestrian streets link the North and the South Squares. As well as the normal tourist bric-à-brac and ice cream stalls, this is an area where people come out to dance and generally enjoy themselves. Charming!

Head on further south towards the pagoda and there’s a nicely carved frieze showing off horses and chariots heading off into battle.

Enjoy it while you can, because in a short while it will be covered by a gigantic waterfall stretching the entire width of the central area.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda itself, (大雁塔: Dàyàn tǎ), was built in 652 during the Tang dynasty and originally had five storeys. It was rebuilt 50 years later after it collapsed, with an extra five storeys added. But a massive earthquake in 1556 heavily damaged the pagoda and reduced it to its current height of seven storeys. It was renovated once again in 1964 and now stands 64 metres tall.

The pagoda is unusual in that it was built with layers of bricks without any cement used at all. The bracket style used in traditional Chinese architecture was also used.

As for the reason why it is called Big Wild Goose Pagoda, the story goes that there were two branches of Buddhism, for one of which eating meat was not a taboo. One day, the monks could find no meat to buy. But a group of big wild geese were flying by, and the leading goose broke its wing and fell to the ground. All the monks believed that Bodhisattva showed his spirit to order them to be more pious. They established a pagoda where the wild goose fell and stopped eating meat.

One of the pagoda's many functions was to hold sutras and figurines of the Buddha that were brought to China from India by the Buddhist translator and traveller Xuanzang, who translated Sanskrit scriptures and developed theories of consciousness, karma and rebirth that were adopted by some later schools of Buddhism.

Xuanzang travelled for 17 years, through 100 countries, and obtained Buddha figures, 657 kinds of sutras, and several Buddha relics. As the first abbot of Da Ci'en Temple, he supervised the building of the pagoda inside it.

The focus of the South Square is a statue of Xuanzang apparently expounding on the Buddhist doctrines.

Impressive though the pagoda is, the main reason the majority of people come here, I suspect, is to see the musical fountains which it is claimed are the largest in Asia (What? Dubai is no longer in Asia???). The fountain display contains 1360 sets of pumps, 1124 sets of transducers, 3300 sets of lamps and more than 2,000 water jets, some of which can send water 60 metres into the air..

The waterscape area covers an area of 15,000 sq m (Dubai is 30,000 sq m!) and is divided into three areas: a 100m Waterfall Pool, Eight-level Plunge Pool and Prelude Music Pool. The central area of the square features 22 different shapes of sprays, including lotuses, a sea of clouds, flying gulls, and a laser water curtain. It even spews out fire from some of the many orifices (though not when I was there unfortunately).

There are plenty of notices around showing the times of the fountain performances, though you should be aware that they can be cancelled owing to “irresistible factors”!

Around the gardens are numerous bronze statues showing diversified folk customs and everyday scenes in Shaanxi. Some are quite cute and attracts many to take selfies with them.

As night starts to fall, the floral displays are lit up and almost come alive.

The detail in the displays is impressive, and if you look closely you can see all kinds of things that are so easy to miss with just a casual glance. I particularly like some of the birds perched on the branches.

And as you turn back for a final sighting of the area, the wave of lights that are hung in the trees, but are reflected so perfectly in the still waters, is truly a sight worth capturing. Well done Xi’an. You made my trip to your city well worthwhile!

To reach the pagoda, temple and fountains, simply take Metro Line 3 to Dayanta Station. It couldn’t be easier!