Tuesday, December 31, 2013

China 2009: Beijing - 798 Art District, Military Museum

Whenever we visit a new city, after hitting the main tourist attractions, we always like to find a couple of hidden gems that are off the beaten path and sometimes only known to the locals.  The 798 Art Zone and the Chinese Military Museum both qualify for this distinction.

The 798 Art Zone is an artist community residing in a former factory complex dating back to the 1950s, which produced military components, as well as civilian electronics and acoustic equipment.  The high ceilings and concrete industrial feel add to the charm of the area.  Bright red propaganda slogans from the Mao era were deliberately left in place over large arches of the concrete walls, as they were considered "Mao kitsch".

In the first gallery that we visited,  a set of manipulated photographs was titled "Between the Sexes" and showed a female, often scantily dressed, interacting with the head of a male.  It was surprising to see such risque, dominant, and aggressive depictions of the female relative to the male.

Another surprise was the irreverent depictions of the Communist party, Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution in the art pieces.  The apparent message of a painting of guards taking away a protestor who has a sign pinned to his chest saying "Anti-Revolution" is deliberately undermined by the fact that all the characters are drawn as babies.

Another gallery featured stuffed dogs that are then dressed up and positioned to look like they are doing human activities such as reading the newspaper or playing tennis.  Other whimsical sculptures are scattered through the streets and alleyways of the 798 Art Zone.

The Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution is not usually on the radar for foreign tourists visiting Beijing, but it was definitely a hit with the Chinese tourists from the villages.  We found out later that this site was popular for operators of tour groups since the museum is free for Chinese residents. Just like at the Great Wall of China, we made the mistake of thinking that it would be less busy right when the building opened.  When we showed up, we found the lineup wrapped around the block.  We almost decided to give up and leave, or at least go get a snack and try again later.  But once again the allure of the Caucasian saved the day.  While we were walking past the front of the line, multiple people spotted Rich and said that it would be their honour if they could let us get in line in front of them.

The bulk of the museum's military equipment was used by or captured by the People's Liberation Army, including anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, aircraft, boats, rockets, artillery, guns and other arms.  There were also collections of foreign equipment from Russia, USA, and Japan.

There was the remnants of an American U2 spy plane flown by Taiwan, which was shot down over China during the 1960s cold war.  A Russian-made MIG15 was shown in front of a mural showing Sabre Jets being shot down.  Rich's uncle used to fly a Sabre Jet and probably would not be impressed with this depiction!   There were many more Russian-made Chinese MIG airplanes on display which could be viewed from a higher floor, giving us a bird's-eye view.

For me, one of the most interesting exhibits was the set of portraits of a young Mao Tse Tung.  Since I've only ever seen the traditional images of the older, plumper Mao, this was like the first time I saw the comparison images of Fat Elvis vs Thin Elvis.  The way young Mao was depicted was reminiscent of religious portraits of Christ–portrayed as a reverential figure with all his "disciples" gazing up towards him with an expression of rapture on their faces.  In one painting, you can even see a glow above his head.

Having visited various military museums including the Invalide in Paris and the Austrian Military Museum in Vienna, I've concluded that it is common for military commentary and propaganda to be  skewed towards the home country.  However the Chinese Military Museum takes this concept to the next level.  The building is filled with blatant propaganda exhibits that glorify the Communist Party.  One particular spin hit close to home for me personally.  There was a sign that said "The return of Hong Kong and Macao to the motherland, wiping out the hundred-year humiliation of the Chinese nation".  It was positioned next to a huge photo of Mao surrounded by a hoard of joyfully beaming children.  Since my own family left Hong Kong in the late 60s in anticipation of its reunification with China, I am skeptical of the accuracy of this message.

Another reoccurring theme describes of how China had been repeatedly picked on by foreign powers throughout the years, but was finally able to rise and defend itself through the leadership of Mao and the Communist Party.  In one example, it is described that the Chinese army fought bravely and would have won the battle against the "joint war of aggression against China by Britain and France", if it hadn't been for the Qing government implementing the ill-advised policy of "ceasing war first".  This seemed like a very twisted and round-about way of admitting that China had surrendered.

The upper floors displayed historical artifacts going as far back as 4000 years before the Qing dynasty.  The top floor contained gifts to the Chinese Military or  State by foreign governments.

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