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I don’t mind admitting that the allure of air conditioning played a considerable role in my recent decision to visit the National Museum of China in Beijing.
Exploring the ancient capital in late July while on a G Adventures Hidden China & Inner Mongolia tour, I’d spent the past few hours walking with our small group through the bustling Tiananmen Square and the sizzling Forbidden City, which was teeming with brightly colored umbrellas carried mainly by Asian visitors hoping to avoid the sun’s heat.
All that time in the soaring Beijing temperature and humidity made the promise of far cooler, interior exhibition halls a free-time option I just couldn’t pass up. So while other G Adventurers in our group headed out to explore some of the city’s outdoor markets and traditional old courtyard districts, also known as hutong, or simply headed back to the hotel for a nap, I cued up on the eastern edge of Tiananmen Square and hoped for a heavy blast of ancient Chinese culture and refrigerated centralized air.
After an extensive three-year renovation project, the National Museum of China reopened to the public in March 2011. Today, it is cavernous institution housing a number of modern exhibition spaces and a colossal basement collection of superb Chinese antiquities, all of which probably warrants multiple visits to truly appreciate.
Many folks well versed in travel to Asia have probably heard the claim that the National Palace Museum in Taiwan is home to the best collection of ancient Chinese artwork, much of which traveled to Taipei in 1948 as China’s then nationalist government and Chiang Kai Shek fled communist revolutionaries.
I am an ardent fan of that Taipei museum, and have spent hours wandering its astonishing collection. But I’d have to say that the National Museum in Beijing, loaded with bronze vessels, ancient pottery, porcelain and jade carvings — all with English translations — certainly rivals the Taiwan institution and may in some instances surpass it.
The Communist ConnectionThe National Museum of China in Beijing also has something you won’t find in Taipei: a loving homage to China’s communist government, Marxist philosophies and a showcase of towering tribute paintings starring chairman Mao Zedong. You can also look over shoes worn by the notorious Chinese leader in battle, a 1930s-era Red Army cap also worn by Zedong, and the official flag Mao raised at a 1949 ceremony proclaiming the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square before a gathering of 300,000 civilians and members of the military.
The National Museum is brimming with striking exhibitions dedicated to the country’s turbulent history, all of which were hugely popular with the many Asian visitors touring the facility. This turned my experience into a fantastic chance to view contemporary Chinese national pride in motion.
The foyer of Beijing's National Museum of China is often full of visitors eager to see the site’s collection of communist artwork. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
Among the National Museum of China’s treasures is this painted pottery horse from the Tang dynasty. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
This bixie, a mythical lion-like beast commonly stationed outside the tombs of Chinese aristocracy, dates back to around 25 AD and is from the Eastern Han Dynasty. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
This collection of statues depicting Chinese generals is a particularly popular spot for taking photos. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
Museum visitors can view a range of Mao artifacts, including this pair of shoes he is said to have worn during a battle in Shaanxi. // © 2014 Shane Nelson
For example, two collections of large-scale sculptures of Chinese generals and one huge painting entitled The Founding Ceremony, portraying Mao at the historic 1949 ceremony in Tiananmen Square, were extremely popular. These were both continuously crowded with what seemed to be mostly Chinese museum-goers posing in front of the grand works for photos. Many adults were especially eager to capture images of their children smiling brightly in front of the immense painting and imposing military statues.
The National Museum of China certainly offered far more than just cool air, compelling me to spend several hours hurrying from exhibit to exhibit, hoping all the while I wouldn’t miss anything important. The museum is a terrific showcase of the ancient craftsmanship many westerners have long associated with China’s rich heritage, along with a more unexpected tribute to a recent history that U.S. visitors are likely to view somewhat differently than the Chinese.
International visitors will need to bring their passport to receive free admittance.