Tiananmen Square has been a symbol of Chinese national power since the 15th Century. Generally a tourist will approach from the South, passing Mao’s tomb and the People’s Heroes monument, briefly noticing the imposing buildings to either side of them as they approach and enter the Forbidden City. One of these is the Chinese legislative building, and the other is the National Museum of China, which has recently been reopened to the public. It is well worth a visit, especially you are in Beijing during the summer season, where a hot day can demoralize a visit to the unforgiving Forbidden City.
The museum, as much as the square itself, is a towering monument to Chinese national power. As a guest approaches it looms over them, and on joining waiting groups, enters the large security apparatus. Perhaps these are due to recent thefts from the Palace Museum or simply the recent opening of the museum but regardless they move quickly (TIP: You need some sort of ID to enter the museum, but almost anything will work.)
The inner lobby of the museum is as imposing as the outer colonnade. Barren except for a few snack stalls and signs pointing to the various exhibits, it is hard to determine what exactly the function of the museum is.
A few under-trafficked and unfinished looking sections are probably the most worth seeing. Exhibits by a few 20th Century painters stand out. Particularly, Pan Tianshou’s work looks like an impressionist rendering of traditional Chinese themes, and Li Keran’s work uses western mediums to render Chinese scenes and Chinese mediums to render western scenes. Both interesting takes on the pervasive idea of maintaining Chinese culture in the face of foreign cultural inundation, those with an interest in Chinese art will very much appreciate these.
The history portion of the museum looks sparsely covered with display objects, reminding the reader that a lot of Chinese history has been lost. However sheer area means that many interesting artifacts are already contained within. A jade burial suit, large Buddhas, and a huge portrait of the Qianlong emperor make up some of the highlights.
Close to the history section, a grab bag of visiting exhibits requires a special ticket for entry. Not particularly enriching, a few are tantamount to advertising campaigns (e.g. the current “Around the World with Louis Vuitton” exhibit.)
In the northern wing, an area that used to contain the separate “Museum of the Revolution” before it merged with the National Museum, is more a tour of the Chinese psyche than a coherent display of historical material. However for this reason alone it is interesting, and certainly an informative experience to follow behind a tour group of policemen being instructed on government endorsed history from now until the present.
The museum, especially for tourists, has a lot of growing up to do. Exhibits are often spotty in providing English translations, and many areas are unfinished or still under construction. However over the next few years as collections fill out and people realize it is now open, it will get traffic. A trip to this landmark in the future would not be amiss.