History in Progress, with Gaps: The National Museum of China, Part Two

By Shelly Kraicer

Visitors seem dazzled by the might of painterly propaganda in the "90th anniversary of the CCP" painting exhibit.

A major function of the National Museum of China is its definition and display of Chinese history under the Party. This section, somewhat romantically entitled “The Road of Rejuvenation” takes up a major part of NMC’s northern section. I walked through it all, from the Opium War to “China in Space.”

Inside the Grand Hall. If it looks like an elegant version of a terminal, it's because the German architects specialize in airports.

First, we enter a sculptural antichamber. This has got to be one of the weirdest immersive sculptural environments I’ve ever seen. An enormous entrance hall has been clotted with what looks like baked clay (I guess it’s depressingly expensive bronze that preserves the original rough slapdash clay “style” of the sculpture). On the left, scenes of feudal China (somewhat more beguiling than depressing, to my eye). On the right, scenes of modern China under the Leadership of the Party (really bleak and ugly, a lot of it is weirdly blank but one can make out a kindergarten model style mini-HK skyline, a high speed train rushing across the Tibetan plateau, and a fast cosmic ball of something, whirring with lumpy clay energy. In the middle, brutally (or, rather, I should say boldly) cleaving past and future in two is a sleek perforated sculpture, designed like a retro jet age style symbolic representation of what must be the progressive force of the Chinese Communist Party (think 1930s deco aggressively angled car hood ornament the size of a small jet). Suitably ideologically seasoned, I entered the Road of Rejuvenation galleries.

There’s something depressingly old-fashioned and small-scale about all of this. I was expecting, I don’t know, something fresh and imaginative, designed at least to display the currently authoritative version of Chinese history in an impressive or at least rhetorically vigorous way. Perhaps I was expecting to see at least a lavish application of unlimited budget to ideological goals where the stakes were enormous. Apparently making something both new and coherent and politically satisfactory was too hard a task, and the curators of this section fell back on the oldest cliches of Chinese ideological museology.

History in pictures, or by the numbers?

Walls are plastered with enlarged photographs, each accompanied by copious explanatory texts (in Chinese and often in English, which is thoughtful); no progressive historical figure of any importance can be left out, so we often get pictures of meetings, and portraits and lists of everyone who might have been present. Come to think of it, this is exactly the strategy of the two giant propaganda film hits of the last two years, The Founding of A Republic and The Beginning of the Great Revival. And it’s exactly what bogs down the second film, turning it essentially into a power-point display of Chinese Communist hagiography, incidentally turning off audiences, who failed to purchase tickets in Party-mandated droves.

There are artifacts as well, although which ones are authentic and which are replicas is hard to discern (and the labels rarely make distinctions for us, unlike the Ancient China galleries, where replicas are meticulously labelled as such). Sun Yat-sen’s hat, for example, seems to be made of suspiciously new-looking wool, though the black brim looks authentically worn. I was taken with the original plaque for the Beijng Imperial University. At least I think it was the original.

The dark grey walls of the oppressively colonial late Qing era historical display rooms progressively lighten until we reach the mockup of Tiananmen. An explosion of red greets the eye. It’s 1949, and the brightest red walls decorate the upbeat, celebratory exhibits. Here there is lots of technology (machines, or models of machines, are everywhere) and lots of weaponry (attracting the entranced attention of the youngest museum-goers the day I was there). After Liberation, the exhibition space walls become pink (socialist pink?), then fade to clean white, matching the contemporary post-capitalist characterless era of the PRC, celebrated with endless dull photographs of Deng Xiaoping, followed by Jiang Zemin, followed by Hu Jintao. Perhaps I should have counted the photos, for now I wonder if the tallies for these three would have been exactly equal.

Gallery space leading to the Deng Xiaoping era: a gap in history waiting to be filled

I wanted to pay special attention to the displays from around 1966 to 1976, but couldn’t find any. Chairman Mao largely disappears from the photos in the early 60s (there is a lot of Zhou Enlai beaming, welcoming foreign guests, etc.), and then there’s a jump to 1972, which is exclusively about Nixon in China. Nothing happens up on the walls in between. In fact, this hiatus is echoed by a remarkable caesura in the display architecture: we enter a large empty lobby right after the eight photographs from 1972-76. Nobody’s there, nothing’s on the walls, just a few benches scattered around to sit and contemplate, as we walk down 5 flights of stairs, and then we’re into the Deng Xiaoping era as the galleries resume. Perhaps the building’s architecture just happened to need a lobby here, with an intervening staircase. Perhaps it’s empty space to be filled with something about the currently undepictable Cultural Revolution, when the time comes for the Museum to face that part of Chinese history. In an interesting coincidence, the historical display in the China National Film Museum in Beijing does exactly the same thing between 1966 and 1976: there’s a gap, and empty lobby and a staircase, and then the displays resume.

In other words, Chinese history is a work in progress. Such can be seen throughout the National Museum of China, whose combination of monumentality and contingency, glorious beauty and stolid ideology, mirrors awkwardly, but also quite appropriately, China today.

To retrieve some of the National Museum’s missing history between 1959 and 1976, watch historical documentary filmmaker Hu Jie’s films Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul and Though I Am Gone.

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