Museums/exhibits

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By Leksa Chmielewski

Shanghainese, coffee and the generational divide

As I chat with the librarian-cum-barista, a Shanghainese family comes in and starts looking over the menu. They order three different kinds of imported coffee and as the librarian lights the flame percolator, I ask her whether there are differences between Shanghainese visitors and those from other areas of China.

“The Shanghainese are more inclined to talk. I can tell the non-Shanghainese by the way they walk, and their silence. When I recommend books to them from the gift shop, they don’t respond. When they leave and I say goodbye, they don’t even turn to look at me and I feel silly. And of course, only the Shanghainese drink coffee.”

Which Shanghainese drink coffee?

“Oh, the older ones.” The father of the coffee-drinking family joins the conversation: “Only the older generation likes coffee. The children won’t drink it.” Kids these days! “The older generation likes to drink coffee, sit, and enjoy a pleasant atmosphere.” Indeed, this family walked in the door just half an hour before closing time, and the librarian was nervous that they wouldn’t have time to finish. They had assured her they’d simply “drink one cup and go.” But they are still there, relaxing, drinking in the 40 million yuan décor forty-five minutes later. When the librarian offers the family water after they’ve finished their coffee, they refuse: “No, we’re just enjoying the flavor.” The father asks why the café is silent: “Coffee shops should have music!” The librarian replies enthusiastically that she used to use saxophone music before she was asked to stop by the House Museum management—when she played music the atmosphere was not “serious” enough. Back before she was asked to stop, she had originally been looking for 1930s saxophone jazz before giving up and choosing contemporary saxophone over 1930s piano—the piano would have been authentic, but the saxophone was relaxing.

So what, then, does the younger generation drink?

The father and the librarian agree: the youth won’t drink coffee like their parents; they like fruit drinks and pearl milk tea. Tea! It’s no surprise that only the young like the wide-straw drinks with three different types of chewy things floating in them, but what is surprising, when set against the backdrop of the rest of China, is that the middle-aged have latched onto coffee while the youngsters slurp tea-based drinks. It’s the opposite of the rest of China. And it only holds together through a certain kind of misremembering.

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By Leksa Chmielewski

Winners and losers in a twist on a museum café

In American museums, the museum gift shop or café stands as a constant reminder—before exhibit visits, after them, even in between them—of the dire financial straights in which nonprofits chronically find themselves. Museum gift shops and cafes are multiplying in Chinese museums too, even though the vast majority of Chinese museums are state-affiliated and enjoy full government funding. Chinese academics who work with museums lament that the Chinese museum scene still has much to learn from the American nonprofit-based system—but if that implies budget cuts, layoffs and a proliferation of museum shops selling finger-puppet versions of classic paintings, it’s not entirely clear why. Museum gift shops and cafes are common in America and becoming more common in China, and those that museum staff (in my experience, both American and Chinese) find more acceptable are those that manage to integrate product offerings with exhibit themes. But few go as far as the Liu Changsheng House in Shanghai’s Jing’an District, where visitors conclude their walk through an exhibit about the Communist Party’s pre-liberation underground activities with a cup of coffee flame-percolated the old fashioned, labor-intensive way, and by a very overqualified librarian.

The Liu Changsheng House Museum in Jing’an District

The Liu Changsheng House, now located on Yuyuan Road beside the Jing’an Si subway station, was built in the early 1920s, according to those who work there. It was occupied by at least one foreign family, including a family of Jewish refugees, before Liu Changsheng moved in. Liu Changsheng was Vice-Secretary General of the CCP, and after the Party went underground in the late 1920s, some secret meetings were held in the home.

Plotting the revolution over a cup of joe. Wax models of Liu Changsheng (in Chinese dress) and Liu Xiang (in Western garb) “consulting on the strategy for the revolutionary struggle” in secret

The rough narrative according to staff, who disagree on some of the details, is that the Jing’an District Library petitioned to save the house as a historic site, and it was dragged bit by bit down the street before the Jiuguang Mall was built over the original site. The house was renovated and given a permanent exhibition taking up the second and third floors, and an old coffee shop relocated into the ground floor from a site a few blocks away. After a total investment of 40 million RMB, the Liu Changsheng House opened in 2003. The permanent exhibition on the second and third floors tells a politically correct story of the CCP in Shanghai until 1949, with a focus on the time it operated underground. Visitors can enter for free and opt for a self-guided tour or a tour led by student volunteers recruited by local schools and universities. Visitors are fed into a teleological funnel from 1927, by way of the only possible path through the exhibit, to 1949, which looms inevitable and festooned with red banners and lanterns at the end of the second floor of the exhibition. Visitors may then opt to stop by the first-floor coffee shop before they leave.

It seems I didn’t hide my surprise very well when I first heard of the ground-floor coffee shop. The tour guides rushed to explain that Liu Changsheng and his cronies used to sit around in the house drinking coffee while they made their woodblock printed newsletters and dreamed of the utopian future. It wasn’t until I reached the coffee shop itself and had a chat with the staff there that I realized what most visitors who walk through, even stop to have a drink, never do: visitors might pause to appreciate the 1930s-era décor and flame-percolated offerings without ever learning that the shop is the latter-day incarnation of an actual café which was located a few blocks away, frequented, according to staff, by the likes of Eileen Chang. It turns out that the café staff and museum staff belong to separate departments of the same work unit. The café and museum are two separate (but similarly themed) units coming together in one building, and they may not be the only ones. The museum exhibit includes a small “water jail” exhibit in a corner where a dummy appears to be submerged in water up to its waist. When the tour guide presses a button, the display is bathed in blue light, a “fire” burns in a sconce on the wall, and a soundtrack of rattling chains plays. The guide explains that this is a recreated scene from a jail run by the municipal government under Japanese occupation. The original jail was nearby on what is now Wanhangdu Road. Now a school stands there.

“Water jail”

It appears that what was at first glance a museum café better integrated with the theme of the Historic House than most in-house money-making ventures, is actually all that remains of a historically significant café. The “water jail” recreated display in the exhibit area, and three framed original manacles on the wall, are likewise all that is left of the nearby jail. Suddenly the high cost of moving the Liu Changsheng House is put into perspective: does that price tag include the “preservation” of the café and the jail as well? And who ended up footing the bill to move the house—the Jing’an District Government, or the developers who wanted to build the Jiuguang Mall over its original location?

Perhaps the less obvious questions have to do with the relationship between the (at least) three targets of preservation—the house, the jail, and the café—housed in one building: the jail is relegated to a small corner of the house museum’s display about the CCP; what does it mean when one is reduced to a bullet point that bolsters the message of the other? The café hosts events that bring in a tidy 20,000 yuan for a four-hour party; what does it mean when one supports the others financially?

A house, a jail, a café: winners and losers.

Leksa Chmielewski is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. Part 2 of “A House Museum Café” will appear at The China Beat tomorrow.

By Kenneth Pomeranz

A short trip to China earlier this month took me to Beijing to give a talk, to Shijiazhuang for a conference, and, briefly, to the Hebei countryside — my first time in quite a while in rural North China. And it once again proved that every trip teaches you something, but often not on the expected topics. (One little detail that I found telling: most of the Beijing-based academics who were at the Shijiazhuang conference told me it was their first time there. True, Shijiazhuang is not a tourist hot spot, but it is a provincial capital, with over 2 million people in the city, and it’s barely 2 hours away by fast train.)

One of the talks I was giving was on environmental history, and I’ve become more or less obsessed by North China’s water shortages — so naturally I arrived in the middle of summer rains with everything looking green. That doesn’t mean the water problems aren’t real, of course, but this time around I didn’t learn much about them. (There was a desperate shortage of life-giving fluid — I went without coffee for two and a half days — but that’s another matter.) On the other hand, I learned an awful lot when our hosts in Shijiazhuang took us to a place that I hadn’t expected to find all that interesting: Xibaipo.

Xibaipo, in Southwestern Hebei along the edge of the Taihang Mountains, was part of one of the CCP’s 19 base areas during the war against Japan; it became the party’s principal headquarters after a Nationalist offensive drove them out of Yen’an in 1947, remaining so until March of 1949. (Mao arrived in May of 1948.) It was the site of the key national conference on land reform, and the place from which some of the Civil War’s decisive battles were planned. It was opened as a museum in 1978, and if I heard correctly, it has logged 240 million visitors since then. (Very few of them are foreigners, according to our guide, and I saw no other obvious foreigners during our visit.) Americans can think of it as a sort of cross between Valley Forge and Independence Hall, or what such a place might be if it were plunked down in Appalachia — Pingshan is on the Chinese government’s official list of poverty-stricken counties.

main office of xinhua

Xinhua office

Much of the site is taken up by reconstructions of the homes and offices of major CCP leaders who were here: Mao, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Dong Biwu, and others. (The originals were destroyed as part of a dam-building project — OK, you knew I’d get water issues in there somehow.) Jiang Qing’s room is also clearly marked, but was locked during my visit. All of these are quite Spartan — simple beds or kangs, chairs, and desks, and very little decoration besides a photo of the couple in each residence and some maps, which did not look nearly detailed enough to plot any campaigns on, in the military headquarters. Many also featured some very simple tool suggesting participation in manual labor: a spinning wheel near the bed, a grinding stone in the courtyard. (I have no way of knowing how closely this corresponds to what the place looked like in 1948.) The photos — some probably wedding pictures, some not — are among the most interesting details. Most show the couple standing or sitting close enough that one can’t be sure whether they are touching, both looking straight ahead, only the woman smiling. One wonders whether this is coincidence, or whether, like so many aspects of CCP family and gender policy in these years, they were carefully calibrated compromises between the urban, May 4th heritage of so many CCP leaders and the much more conservative values (at least as the leadership saw it) of their peasant base. The explanations that were provided — both by signs and by our guide, a local middle school student — were generally matter-of-fact. The crowds that filed though were pretty quiet and serious: I saw no expressions of great revolutionary fervor, but I didn’t hear any jokes, either, and one of the most popular places to take a photo of oneself seemed to be by the plaque that had the pledge recited by people joining the Party.

Portrait of a CCP couple at Xibaipo

Portrait of a CCP couple at Xibaipo

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By Kelly Hammond

When I was approached to help National Geographic with their ongoing exhibit of the Terra Cotta Warriors at their museum in Washington, D.C., I thought to myself: “Really? Me? But I work on Islam in late imperial China! I’m one of those scholars who mistakenly types Qing anytime I write about the Qin simply out of finger muscle memory! What could I possibly know about China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang?”

Turns out that it is much more than most people.

I had assisted twice in a “pre-modern” China survey and read Mark Lewis’ fabulous book The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han. I had lived in both Urumqi and Shanghai for substantial periods of time and had even been to Xi’an. And, over the past four years, I’ve managed to accumulate more than enough “graduate student knowledge” focusing almost exclusively on China’s history. Once my anxiety dissipated, I realized that I was probably more than adequately prepared for the barrage of questions I would encounter. During our initial tour with the exhibit curator, I looked around at the motley crew of “experts” National Geographic had assembled and couldn’t help but chuckle: a classmate who regularly sports Democratic Progressive Party green, a young Uyghur MA candidate, an Irishman, and a few other scholarly dissidents who often have problems procuring visas for research in China.  As we toured the exhibit, we were told that the Chinese government had inserted a clause in the contract with the museum which stipulated that if anything endangered the integrity of the warriors or the Chinese nation-state while they were on display in Washington, the exhibit would be removed instantly. Apparently, someone at the British Museum in London had jumped through security and draped a Tibetan flag and a gas mask on one of the warriors while they were on display there.

We went about our task, and after working tirelessly with my colleagues on a script that would be delivered to tours of bureaucrats, diplomats and other high-rollers in pant-suits, I wondered: “What kind of ridiculous questions are these people going to ask us? We’re so not ready for this!” (I imagined it being very similar to undergrads that catch me off-guard with probing questions: “Isn’t there, like, an inherent contradiction between Buddhism and pastoral nomadism? Like, did the Mongols just raise sheep and not eat them? Isn’t that, like, weird?” one student asked me, never looking up from her Blackberry.)

And I was right. I’d put in some time working on a script to deliver in the section called Building the Empire. I was so ready to tell people all about important military reforms by the Qin state beginning around 356 BC which, coupled with tax reforms, had allowed Qin to build an effective army while reducing the power of the traditional aristocracy. I also wanted to tell people how these simple reforms had radically altered the nature of the army and the state in China, as well as the relationship between the two. I was excited to impart my new knowledge to unsuspecting victims! Who wouldn’t be interested in learning how the new Qin emperor had resettled 120,000 of the most powerful families from the states he had conquered in his new capital, Xianyang? And, how this policy of drawing the empire’s elites to the center had reduced the possibility of resistance and placed elite families in one place, effectively demonstrating that Xianyang was the new center of the empire? I was excited to tell people that with these reforms the new emperor had essentially invented the imperial capital, which would come to play such an integral role in the building and maintenance of later empires.

Who wouldn’t want to know that apart from standardizing coins and the gauges of carriages, weapons during the Qin were also manufactured to standard dimensions? Or that weapons were inscribed with the date of manufacture and the names of the foremen to ensure quality? I did! People were sure to ask me questions about this standardization, and I could also tell them that the unification under the Qin helped to regulate institutions and values that would begin to transcend regional ties. Or how these traditions, which were reinforced throughout the Qin were exemplified in the imperial inspection tours taken by Qin Shihuang, and that on these tours he erected large steles; ceremonial and architectural assertions of his power. When I told people about the steles, someone would surely question me about the institutional programs that aimed to centralize and unify important aspects of Chinese life that were imprinted on the steles and spread throughout the empire. No? And, who wouldn’t want to know that the Qin defeat came because they were not able to adapt to the extensive changes that the end of the permanent war had brought about—showing how important the ability of the military to adapt to the realities of society are in both building and maintaining an empire?

Well, apparently a lot of people didn’t.

I prepared myself for the onslaught of questions. I’d even thought about what I wanted to tell people who had read the chapter in Guns, Germs and Steel about China (“It’s all wrong! It’s all wrong!” while pulling out my hair and grinding my teeth for added effect). But for the most part, the questions people asked me were, well, ridiculous.

Below are the five most absurd questions I was asked during my brief stint with the Terra Cotta Warriors. I’ve also included my equally ridiculous answers, in an effort to show that people are always willing to believe an “expert” like myself.

5. Question: Are the Terra Cotta Warriors real people that were dipped in clay and fired?

Answer: Um. No.

4. Question: That warrior doesn’t look Chinese. Isn’t he kind of tall to be a Chinese person?

Answer: [Ah! Here presents a great opportunity to talk about ethnic diversity in China! No! It isn’t a homogeneous blob!] Well actually, that’s a really good question…

Questioner: It is? [Seems surprised. Answers Blackberry and never returns.]

3. In the section Building the Empire, there were numerous clay pipes on display which were cast in standard sizes and used for irrigation and drainage:

Question: Why are the pipes pentagonal and not round?

Answer: Ugh…so that they won’t roll away? [She believes me. We move on.]

2.Question: That emperor guy must not have been very smart if he was searching for immortality but he ended up dying of mercury poisoning. He was pretty stupid, wouldn’t you say?

Me: Ummm…I’m not sure I would say that he was stupid…

Questioner: Well I would. What kind of idiot eats mercury? [Walks away.]

Me: Fair enough.

1. Question: Wait, I don’t get it. You said you study Chinese history? But why? And, why does that horse have a hole in its butt?

Me: Well, funnily enough, that’s a question my parents ask me every time I call them… [Other commonly asked questions: “How can someone who speaks Chinese and Japanese and knows as much about China as you do make so little money?”]

Questioner: So, why do you study Chinese history?

Me: Well, it’s complicated. I just…

Questioner: Oh, just tell me about the hole in the horse’s butt.

Me: Right, well…the horses were built in seven parts and because they were fired in a kiln they needed to be hollow so that they wouldn’t explode. Some of the terra cotta horses they’ve found have a hole in their side but this one, this one, has a hole in his butt…

Questioner: [interrupting me] I have a son. He’s very smart, like you,  and he teaches English in Bali. Do you use email?

Me: Email? No. No, I don’t.

In the New Year I’ll be taking a few groups of first graders on tours of the warriors. Many of them speak Chinese and have been “studying” China in their first grade class. I can’t wait for their questions…

I would encourage anyone visiting the Washington D.C. area before March 31, 2010 to take in the warriors. The exhibit is fabulously curated and the audio guide can probably answer any of your questions just as well as I ever could. I would also encourage everyone to read the article about Xinjiang in the December issue of National Geographic.

Kelly Hammond is a PhD candidate in Chinese history at Georgetown University. Her current research focuses on Japanese collaboration with Chinese Muslims during the Sino-Japanese War.

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