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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.