China's Museums

I have been reading China’s Museums, part of the Cambridge University Press series Introductions to Chinese Culture. I am finding the table of contents particularly interesting,1 as it reflects on how you categorize things. The authors, Li Xianyao and Luo Zhewen, are both major figures in the museum world, so the book gives you a reasonably up-to date2 official view of China’s 5,000 years of history and what matters in it.

It is interesting to try and figure out why things were included in what category and why they are there at all. The first category is Chinese Treasures, which starts with the Palace Museum in Beijing, but follows that with the Palace Museum in Taipei (and they call it Taipei) as well as the Shaanxi History Museum, (birthplace of Chinese culture). The Shanghai Museum is included because of “The scope, depth and quality of its collection, and its striking architecture and use of modern technology” I’m guessing that Liaoning Provincial3 is included because of the Qing stuff they have. Something good on China’s last Emperors, and thus emperors in general, is worth including. Three Gorges in Chongqing has a “glass dome [that] resembles a huge magnifying glass, reminding us to pass on the inheritance we have received from our forebears to the next generation, to use culture to nourish the earth.” So I am guessing that some combination of quality of your collection, excellence of your presentation, and importance of what you do in the narrative of Chinese history will get your museum in this book.

The second section, is, of course, The Contribution of China’s Ethnic Minorities. Eventually we get to Huaxia civilization, and these two reflect the problems of defining China. This is particularly acute for museums, since it is easier for them to slip into Han chauvinism. If all of China’s 56 nationalities are part of the great tapestry of Chinese civilization, then why is almost everything in the book Han, other than a single section on minorities?

They get around this a bit, with their definition of Huaxia 華夏, a sort of cosmic Han category that includes everything.

The term huaxia, however, is broader in meaning that “China” It indicates more of a cultural space than a geographic designation, and also implies a historical lineage. Xia is the name of the first-known dynasty of what later came to be “China.” dating to some three millennia ago.  The term hua includes both overseas Chinese as well as non-ethnic Chinese under the overarching umbrella of what today is known as China. Cultural aspects of huaxia, such as silk, tea, ceramics and Chinese medicine, have all made great contributions to mankind.

Some of the rest of the book is trying to categorize the stuff you are stuck with. Not many other countries would have a category on Treasures of China’s Grottoes, but when you have Dunhuang and Yungang and Longmen in your cultural past you probably should. Should we include archeological sites? Well, if we don’t Peking Man and Banpo will be left out, so I would guess we should.

One thing I noticed was that there is very little modern history here. Once upon a time Chinese history was revolutionary history, the story of how the Chinese people rose up and destroyed the old feudal society. There is very little of that story here.  No sites associated with Sun Yat-sen or even Mao Zedong, and little reference to the modern period at all.4 You can see this most clearly in the discussion of the National Museum of China5 The Museum has an area of 192,000 square meters, but only 2,000 square meters are dedicated to the Road to Resurgence and China’s modern history.



  1. Why, yes, I am a load of fun at parties. Why do you ask? 

  2. This seems to be the same book that was published in 2004 by China Intercontinental Press, so I’m not sure when the text was written 

  3. Which I have not been to 

  4. Zigong Salt Industry Museum does manage to slip into Natural History. 

  5. There is a great dissertation in how the China Revolutionary Museum and the China History Museum merged to form this. 


  1. I’m unclear why the “Taipei” usage generates your notice. That’s the name of the city, after all. Were you expecting “Taibei” in English so as to follow the bowdlerization of Peking? There’s plenty of pinyin in Taiwan now, not that it makes sense to the average English speaker.

    From the way you’ve written your review, this intro book sounds dull. Have the authors learned about sequels from Hollywood? The majority of the Han people are not ethnically pure- all that Mongol, Uigher, Miao, Manchu, et al. rapings and pillagings contributed inconveniently to Chinese blood. One wonders why the authors bothered with the “contributions” of minorities when defined as “huaxia.” The reader’s clue is in the name…which clearly the writers didn’t bother to rectify. So much for Confucius.

    I’ll stick to my China Eyewitness Travel Guide for Chinese museums should my next visit include Peking, Shensi, or Chungking LOL.

  2. Liaoning is included because it is where a number of important early handscrolls ended up that the last emperor removed from the forbidden city to help finance his lifestyle.

  3. Just traveled Shandong–Mt. Tai, Tai’an, Qufu–and noticed in Qufu (Confucius’ hometown and site of his temple and tomb, for crying out loud), a…wait for it…”Museum of Chinese Businessmen.” Oy. Roll over, Kongzi.

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