Time Out's ultimate guide to The National Museum of China

Navigate 1.7 million years of Chinese history under one 65,000-square-metre roof

Sitting on the east side of Tiananmen Square, The National Museum of China is the second most visited art museum in the world and its third largest. And it really is quite large: with 65,000 square metres in area, it can be a dizzying experience trying to catch it all in one go – so there's no shame in taking a breather, or even two separate trips. We've broken it down into its best on our handy walkthrough guide. Get ready for a journey through 1.7 million years of history…

By Helena Poole
The building itself

The building itself

As part of the Great Leap Forward's Ten Great Buildings project, the National Museum was built in a mind-boggling ten months in 1959 (pictured), to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the PRC. The original design by architectural historian and preservationist Liang Sicheng is considered a milestone in Chinese architectural history, combining Chinese elements with Western neoclassicism on a Soviet-style scale. A revamp in 2011 preserved the imposing façade and forecourt, while also adding a new extension that blends in rather seamlessly, with its design referencing the recessed ceilings of the Forbidden City and the echeloned roofs from the surrounding Tiananmen Square buildings.


Image: Unknown via Wikimedia Commons

Ancient China

After navigating the crowds of the foyer, head straight down to the Ancient China section – the huge permanent collection that occupies the entire basement of the museum. From the north to the south side of the building, you chronologically follow the development of China's visual culture, beginning with the Lower Palaeolithic period (approximately 1.7 million years ago) and ending with the early 20th century. The curation is somewhat bombastic, attempting to harmonise China's 56 ethnic groups and their objects into a single story of Chinese civilisation, as the foundation of the unified China we see today. Nevertheless, the quality of the objects alone makes it worth the visit. A few of the highlights include:

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The 'Peking Man'

The 'Peking Man'

The first exhibit is the 'Peking Man', the largest collection of hominid bones ever discovered, at the Zhoukoudian site in Beijing's southwestern Fangshan district. The actual exhibit largely comprises replicas as, at the beginning of WWII, the original fossils were sent to America for safekeeping but mysteriously went missing en route, never to be seen again. Only four original teeth (pictured) remain, kept at Sweden's Uppsala University, but it nevertheless remains one of the most significant Palaeolithic discoveries – and mysteries – in the world.


Image: Uppsala University via Wikimedia Commons

2
Animal-shaped drinking vessels

Animal-shaped drinking vessels

Moving through into the section on China's first dynasties – the possibly mythical Xia, the Shang and Western Zhou dynasties (circa 2100-771BC) – animal-shaped wine vessels abound. The depictions on the shaped wine-holders range from rhino, geese, horses and owls, to an incredible bronze vessel decorated with four cast rams' heads. Although the exact ceremonial usage of the animal vessels is unknown, the sheer quantity leaves no doubt that intoxication was a huge part of ritual practice.


Image: Prof. Gary Lee Todd via Wikimedia Commons

3
Tomb figurines

Tomb figurines

Built to protect China's First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang in the afterlife, the Terracotta Army is the most well known example of Chinese burial culture. In the Qin and Han dynasties (221BC-220AD) section, a few of the original terracotta warriors and their horses can be seen, as well as a wonderful range of other tomb protectors, figures and decorations – look out for the Han dynasty (25-220AD) funerary miniatures. Their expression and gestures are so dynamic that the spirit of the deceased lives on to this day.


Image: Siyuwj via Wikimedia Commons

4
The development of porcelain

The development of porcelain

Unsurprisingly, ceramics are not neglected here. The development of skill and technology through the ages is traced from China's Neolithic painted pottery to the complex shapes and intricate decorations on the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) wares. Look out for the earliest examples of Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain in the Liao, Song, Xixia, Jin and Yuan dynasties (916-1368) section. This style of porcelain would change the course of history, dominating the global market as the most widely traded and copied ware in the world. 


Image: Cangminzho via Wikimedia Commons

5
The Phoenix Coronet

The Phoenix Coronet

On entering the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) section, you can't miss Empress Xiaoduan's (1600-1649) magnificent coronet. Encrusted with 100 rubies and 5,000 pearls, and decorated with dragons and phoenixes symbolising the emperor and the empress respectively, this a masterpiece of traditional Chinese jewellery.


Road to Rejuvenation

For the Party narrative of China's history from the First Opium War in 1839 to the present day, head to the North Galleries on levels 2 and 3. Although criticised for not detailing some of the more difficult parts of China's recent history, it is here that you will find some of the most famous works of late 20th century Chinese socialist-realist art. This includes the iconic piece of political theatre, The Founding Ceremony of a Nation (1953) by Dong Xiwen.

The Founding Ceremony of a Nation

The Founding Ceremony of a Nation

In this huge oil painting, Mao, standing at the Imperial Palace Gate overlooking Tiananmen Square, makes his inaugural speech on the founding of the PRC to a vast crowd. It has the bright palette and style of socialist propaganda, while elements from traditional Chinese New Year pictures suggest the ushering in of a new era. The painting is renowned for its revision with members of Mao's entourage being removed and later restored as they fell in and out of favour. Also on show in Road to Rejuvenation is the cowboy hat Deng Xiaoping wore on his trip to America in 1979. Yeehaw.


Image: Gary Greenbaum via Wikimedia Commons

Permanent collections

There are often incredibly well funded temporary exhibitions here at the National Museum, worth checking out if you have time. Currently on show is The Great Reform, a massive exhibition celebrating 40 years of the Reform and Opening Up policy, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. Levels 3 and 4, however, house further permanent collections. There is some overlap between the objects on display in the Ancient China section, but take a look at the following:

1
Exhibition of Selected African Sculptures

Exhibition of Selected African Sculptures

The north-side gallery space on Level 3 houses the National Museum's collection of over 600 traditional wooden carvings from sub-Saharan, Central and West Africa. Although chaotically arranged and lacking historical and cultural information, the objects are arresting, and the exhibition is an interesting example of soft-power diplomacy in Sino-African relations.


Image: Amarespeco via Wikimedia Commons

2
State Gifts: Historical Testament to Friendly Exchanges

State Gifts: Historical Testament to Friendly Exchanges

Still in the north galleries but up the escalators to Level 4 is a fascinating room filled with gifts from visiting dignitaries to Chinese heads of state. It's a whirlwind tour of China's international relations from 1949 until the present day. Starring exhibits include the pond-themed sculptures presented by Richard Nixon to Mao on their historic meeting in 1972, one depicting a pair of porcelain swans and the other a coral bonsai which sees a shoal of little minnows about to be eaten.


Image: White House Photo Office (1969-1974) via Wikimedia Commons

Planning a visit

If you're planning a visit, make sure you bring your passport and allow a generous amount of time. Not only is the museum itself huge, but Tiananmen Square is notoriously time-consuming to get in and out of. Once you've gone through your first round of security to get into the square, you will then have to navigate the crowds and tour groups to get to the eastern side and go through a second round of queuing and security to get into the museum proper. There is a café, tearoom and a number of vending machines to sustain you on your journey around the third largest museum in the world.

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