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Chinese State Museums & Private Art Galleries
Xi’an (Shaanxi Province)
The Shaanxi History Museum, located in Xi’an, is one of the most significant museums in China. With over 370,000 items in its collection, it pays tribute to Shaanxi province’s glorious imperial past. The museum building itself is an architectural work of art. It was designed in the ancient and elegant Tang Dynasty (618-907) style. It is one of the first huge state museums outfitted with modern facilities. It opened to the public on 20 June 1991. Many of the artifacts were excavated in the area, including coins, bronze, silver, and gold objects, pottery, and mural paintings found in Tang tombs.
Nanjing (Jiangsu Province)
The Nanjing Museum, opened to the public in 1978, is one of the largest museums in China. The main building was designed in the 1930s to reflect both Chinese and Western architectural styles. A new building was added in the 1990s to house an exhibit on Chinese architecture in the first half of the 20th century. The Nanjing Museum is most noted for its vast collection of Chinese art, ranging from works from the Jiangsu area during the Ming and Qing dynasties to modern artists such as Fu Baoshi and Chen Zhifo. The collection also includes many interesting artifacts from the Nakhi, Yi, and Miao tribes, as well as other ethnic minorities.
Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province)
Hangzhou is home to the only museum in China solely devoted to Chinese tea culture — the China National Tea Museum. In its five exhibition halls, you can read about the evolution of tea culture in China over the millennia, see beautiful porcelain tea sets, and learn about the planting, making, and tasting of tea. You can also discover the varying tea customs and etiquette from different regions and dynasties, such as Tibet and Sichuan, as well as the Ming and Qing periods. You can even taste tea yourself and participate in a tea-making ceremony.
Wuhan (Hubei Province)
The Hubei Provincial Museum (website in Chinese), located in the provincial capital of Wuhan, is one of the best-known museums in China. It houses many historical and cultural relics that have been designated as national treasures. The collection contains over 200,000 items from the Chu culture and others, including the Sword of Goujian, an ancient 5-ton set of bronze bells (one of the world’s largest musical instruments), and many artifacts from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng.
The Sanxingdui Museum, located near Guanghan in Sichuan Province, houses fascinating artifacts from the nearby archaeological site. This site was rediscovered in 1987, and appears to be the remains of an ancient forgotten city. As far as we know, this Bronze Age culture has left nothing behind in the historical record, not even myth. The artifacts on display include exquisitely made bronze figures, as well as jade, pottery, gold, and copper pieces.
Qushan Town (Sichuan Province)
Qushan Town, located in Beichuan County in the mountainous region of Sichuan Province, is home to a museum and open-air memorial commemorating a recent tragedy. On 12 May 2008, the magnitude-8.0 Wenchuan Earthquake struck, collapsing many buildings in the area, including schools, and leaving around 90,000 people dead or missing.
On 9 May 2013, the Wenchuan Earthquake Memorial Museum was opened to commemorate the 5th anniversary of this disaster. After the earthquake, all the residents of Qushan Town were relocated, and instead of rebuilding the town, the buildings have been stabilized in their current state and preserved as an open-air memorial. The museum, on the site of the former Beichuan High School, tells the stories of the victims, rescue workers, and survivors through texts, videos, and over 5,000 items in 30 exhibition rooms.
If you make it to Tibet during your time in China, you should be sure to visit the Tibet Museum in Lhasa. This relatively new museum was built in the traditional Tibetan architectural style. Inside, you’ll find a rich collection of cultural items, from Buddha statues and ancient thangkas (religious paintings) to imperial jade seals and gold albums. There are also fascinating exhibits devoted to Tibetan medicine and Sanskrit scriptures.
In addition to the large number of state-sponsored museums scattered around China, a growing number of private museums, mostly Chinese art galleries, have been sprouting up around the country over the past couple decades. These museums are funded by wealthy individuals who seek fame in addition to fortune, and feel a social responsibility to heighten public interest in art by sharing their private collections. The country’s currently explosive art market has also helped this movement towards establishing China as a modern world power not only in terms of economic might, but also cultural prowess.
Below is a list of a few of these private art museums:
- The Yuz – Shanghai
- The Long Museum – Shanghai
- The Yellow River Arts Centre – Ningxia Province (northwest China)
- The Sifang Art Museum – Nanjing
- OCAT Xi’an – Xi’an
- The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) - Beijing
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