A Visual Walk through Chinese History


Not everyone agrees with the Chinese version of events, but it does not make the narrative of its National Museum less valid, writes Solomon Elusoji

One morning this past April, we, a group of wide-eyed African journalists, set out for the National Museum of China. It is cold and raining lightly. I have an umbrella, which I share with Ompi, a South African colleague. In front of the museum, while we queue under a sheltered space, a woman offers me a plastic bag for the umbrella. Then we go through a metal-detector and a thorough pat-down follows to complete the security screening.

The lobby is expansive. The floors are neat; visitors mill around, curiosity lodged in their eyes. In Nigeria, as part of my work as a Features Writer, I had been to several museums, but nothing like this. Later, I would make a mental note to stop comparing Chinese infrastructure with what obtained back home, but my brain kept doing it, contrasting, comparing.

One of the first things I spot in the museum is a sculpture depicting the Red Army’s Major Generals during the Long March. It is 530cm wide and 220cm tall and made with reinforced glass plastics.

Studying the sculpture, it is easy to see the importance of the men in this space. They stand tall, hands behind their backs, eyes to the future. Just slightly in front of the pack is the indisputable leader and eventual unifier of the communists during the Long March, Mao Zedong.

The Long March is one of the most historic moments for communism in China. Before World War 2, the Communists were engaged in a fierce war with Nationalists forces under Chiang Kai-shek over the control of Mainland China. It was not a battle between equals in terms of the number of forces. The Nationalists had millions of men while the Communists only numbered a few ten thousands. So, during a crucial moment in the war, in 1935, the Communists were forced to retreat, travelling for about 10,000km to escape the Nationalists’ firepower. Some estimates say they crossed 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers to reach the northwestern province of Shaanxi. This brand of heroism appealed to many young Chinese and was a major reason many flocked to join the Party during the late 1930s and early 1940s, providing a template for the eventual defeat of the Nationalists and the rise of New China in 1949.

We leave the lobby and use the stairs to see the first – and what I believe to be the main – exhibition in the museum: the Road to Rejuvenation. It is a shout into the nation’s history and dreams, a visual representation of what was, what is and what will be.

Those who tell China’s story tend to divide it into three periods: a glorious past, decline and disgrace marked heavily by a closed-door policy which led to the harsh reality of the Opium wars, and the revolution and rejuvenation initiated by Mao’s Communist Party. This is how the Museum, too, in the Road to Rejuvenation, tells the story.

The exhibition opens with a giant wall-oriented design by Tian Kuiyu that transports the visitor through time. The red-brown walls, probably made of clay, evoke traditional nostalgia, a sense of timeless craftsmanship that speaks to China’s 5,000 years history of making art. The details are bold, sometimes awkward, but they form sweet harmony. It is also replete with symbols, a conspicuous one being the Olympics sign which, although painted in brown, is unmistakable for its meaning: that China, in the beginning, was all that was.

Just immediately after Kuiyu’s masterpiece comes artefacts and plaques that depict the decline of Ancient China.

The Chinese are often lampooned for seeing themselves as special, as the sons of heaven. But the idea is not without merit. Once, they were the biggest technological force in the world. They invented paper, printing, gunpowder, compass and built massive ships. No one could match up to them. Then in the 15th century under the Ming Dynasty and later the Qing Dynasty, the empire began to close itself to the outside world. Before the 19th century, it was punishable by death to teach a foreigner Chinese.

But, then, this idea of their uniqueness, a common trend in the history of great nations, led to their own downfall. While the Chinese revelled in their isolationism, the industrial revolution was sweeping through Europe and the world was moving on. The British and Portuguese rendered Chinese gunpowder and ships and production tools antiquated. In 1839, the first Opium War was fought and foreign powers, which had earlier existed only as minor trading partners, descended on Chinese territory like “a swarm of bees”, a plaque at the museum reads.

‘The Lushun Massacre’ by Li Wu and Li Fulai, a lifesize of portrait of foreign armies mutilating ordinary Chinese, tries to drive this picture home. There are several pictures of this sort that expand this terrible moment in Chinese history. Li Xiangqun’s ‘The Chinese People Mired in Misery’ is another excellent example. The misery hangs in the room, heavy and true.

From here we use the stairs again, to the next floor of the exhibition, which addresses the struggle and awakening of the Chinese people, the moment when they sought to understand what had gone with their fabled civilisation. Then there is the revolution and reform and rejuvenation initiated by the Communist Party. It takes hours to take in this story, which is told through countless artefacts kept in pristine condition. I try to take notes, but I can barely keep up. China has too much history. American writer, Peter Hessler, once pointed out that if one was to protect all the ancient sites and relics in the Middle Kingdom, the people would have nowhere to grow their crops.

We leave The Road to Rejuvenation exhibition and walk to a different wing of the museum to see Friendly Exchanges Between the Witness of History, which contained artworks bequeathed to China by leaders from other nations.

Chinese foreign policy is hinged on the awkward idea of non-interference in the politics of other states. It is an idea that has no rigour but one which has the full force of Chinese propaganda behind it. The Chinese believe themselves to be the arbiters of world peace and stability, fashioning state rhetoric to fit this perspective. It is the same spirit behind this section of the museum. Flags of nations circle the upper walls of the exhibition with gifts from tens of countries displayed in glass cases. ‘We have all this because it was given to us, because people respect us,’ the spirit of the section seems to whisper.

There was the wood inlaid copper plaque presented to Comrade Mao Zedong by Cambodian Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk in December 1970; an Ebony wood female bust presented to Comrade Mao Zedong by Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure in September 1960 and countless more.

Then I go in search of art presented by Nigerian leaders. I find two. A Glass Sculpture of a leopard presented to Comrade Jiang Zemin by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in August 2001 and a Bronze Benin queen mother bust presented to Comrade Hu Jintao by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the Chinese version of events, but it does not make the narrative of its National Museum less valid. In the end, it is a powerful story. And this is how nations are built, by perpetuating a narrative of glory. It’s not a matter of truth, but your truth. Yuval Noah Harari, the best-selling author and historian, said it best when he noted: “Movements seeking to change the world often begin by rewriting history, thereby enabling people to reimagine the future . . . they aim not to perpetuate the past, but rather to be liberated from it.”