An insightful visit to the National Museum of China

The museum gives view to the often-overlooked motivations behind the country’s actions.

Shenzhou 5 spacecraft reentry capsule, from China’s first manned space mission in October 2003, and the spacesuit worn by the astronaut who was inside it, Yang Liwei

Seeing a new strain of wheat being touted in the same room as the spacesuit of China’s first astronaut was the moment that awakened me to the country’s perspective. It went from being the backward agrarian country American parents once used to guilt their kids into eating their vegetables (“People are starving in China, and you won’t even finish your plate!”) to being an economic powerhouse, in just a few decades.

This came during an October 2016 visit to the National Museum on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and was surely the reaction curators hoped to elicit. The Chinese people are coming from a point of view the rest world overlooks, underestimates, or is just plain unaware of.

China is engaged in a concerted effort to make its presence felt in the world. This naturally has attracted scrutiny and suspicion as to its motives. Whether others welcome China or shun it, they will need to understand the Chinese perspective if they hope to effectively manage relations. When trade and military frictions heat up, so too does the risk of miscalculation. False assumptions could be disastrous.

This is one reason why I moved to Beijing in the summer of that year. If our countries are bound to go head-to-head over something, as was already obvious in 2016 that they would, it would be good to have more Americans around who have a basic understanding of the people of China, so as to reduce the chances of grave misunderstandings. At the very least, I personally would want a sharper image of the situation were our countries to go to war someday, so I could know where I stand.

This visit gave me a good start.

It’s a country that feels deeply slighted by how the world has treated it over the past two centuries. In the Opium Wars, Britain forced China to buy opium, even as the drug epidemic ripped at the country’s foundations. This would be like Colombia sending in troops to force Americans to accept cocaine in the 1980s (or China forcing the US to buy fentanyl now). Imagine the level of disregard for a people you’d have to have to do that.

Things only got more humiliating from there, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the bungling republican government that took its place, industrialized Japan making China looking asleep at the wheel by comparison, and finally the takeover of much of China by Japan.

For a country that has for thousands of years been the world’s most populous nation and a mythologized destination for traders (and why Europeans stumbled into the Americas in 1492), this must feel bewildering. How could it have arrived at a point so far behind the rest of the world, even much smaller countries? How could it have let itself become so backward?

For anyone who shakes their head in confusion at what motivates China, this is where to start. China seeks above all else to restore its former glory. It explains more than anything else the revolution, the extremes it led to, and the subsequent reconfiguration known as “Reform and Opening Up” that began in 1978. That opening up is why China is now so much more connected to people’s lives, be it through a plastic product bought at your local store or the geopolitical concerns of your leaders. And it all starts with a profound sense of humiliation. (It also explains the sniffy, imperious notes of indignation often sounded by the country’s Foreign Ministry and other authorities.)

“The Chinese nation, a country of diligence, courage, wisdom, and peace, has made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilization. “

National Museum of China

Better still, the museum is a great trove of Commiebilia. Artworks in the styling of 20th century Communist movements. Scenes of revolution, Maoist glory, the Long March. I’ve never remotely been a proponent of communism, but it’s hard not to be drawn in by the imagery, symbols, and spirit.

Gallery: National Museum of China, October 2016*

I was able to grab many shots of such imagery, as well as artifacts of the country’s modern makeover. Most of these are from the “Road of Rejuvenation” exhibit. It gives quick insight into how the country sees itself.

Here’s how the museum itself impartially describes the exhibit:

“The Chinese nation, a country of diligence, courage, wisdom, and peace, has made indelible contributions to the progress of human civilization. National prosperity has been the object of unremitting pursuit for many generations.

“The Road of Rejuvenation is one of the museum’s permanent exhibitions that reflects the Opium War of 1840 onward, the consequent downfall into an abyss of semi-imperial and semi-feudal society, the protests of people of all social strata who had suffered, and the many attempts at national rejuvenation – particularly the Communist Party of China’s fight for the liberation and independence of people of every ethnicity. The exhibition demonstrates the glorious but long course of achieving national happiness and prosperity and fully reveals how the people chose Marxism, the Communist Party of China, socialism, and the reform and opening-up policy. It attests to the Chinese priority of holding high the unswerving banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, and of remaining firmly committed to the Chinese socialist road and theory. “Today, Chinese civilization already stands tall in the East. With the bright prospects of the Great Revival already before us, the dreams and pursuits of Chinese sons and daughters will surely be achieved.”

More images can be seen at the museum’s official site.

And here is a great New York Times article on the museum’s opening. The inevitable quote on China’s mythical 5,000-year history also is a revealing insight into the thinking in mainland China. “We feel we had a lot to show and need the space. … It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.”

*Gallery entries denoted with an asterisk were translated and described by a Chinese colleague, who also advises to “Please refer to Wikipedia or similar sources for the names from the Long March exhibits. Most of the people mentioned later became prominent politicians and generals.”