by IAN JOHNSON
BEIJING — At the elaborately renovated National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square, visitors interested in the recent history of the world’s fastest rising power can gaze at the cowboy hat that Deng Xiaoping once wore when he visited the United States, or admire the bullhorn that President Hu Jintao used to exhort people to overcome hardship after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008.
But if their interests run to the Cultural Revolution that tore the country apart from 1966 to 1976 and resulted in millions of deaths, they will have to search a back corner of the two-million-square-foot museum, which will complete its opening this month, for a single photograph and three lines of text that are the only reference to that era.
China spent more than a decade and nearly $400 million to remake the National Museum into a leading showcase of history and culture, a monument to its rising power no less grand — it is designed to be the world’s largest museum under one roof — and more enduring than the Olympic Games it hosted in 2008.
But one tradition has remained firmly in place: China will not confront its own history. The museum is less the product of extensive research, discovery or creativity than the most prominent symbol of the Communist Party’s efforts to control the narrative of history and suppress alternative points of view, even those that exist within the governing elite. It is also an example of how China finds it difficult to create cultural institutions that prove equal to its economic achievements.
Interviews with participants describe a tortured reconstruction that dragged on years longer than envisioned, with plans constantly revised to accommodate political twists and turns, many decided personally by top party leaders.
Officials rejected proposals for a permanent historical exhibition that would have discussed the disasters of early Communist rule — especially the Great Leap Forward, a political campaign and resulting famine that killed more than 20 million. Some organizers also wanted a candid appraisal of the Cultural Revolution, a decade-long attack on traditional culture and learning, but that effort was squashed.
Instead, the authorities decided that the exhibition on contemporary China should focus, as did the museum before its extensive makeover, on the party’s triumphs.
Another permanent exhibit, on China’s ancient history, also presents an idealized version of the past. It tells the uplifting story of Chinese ethnic groups pulling together to create “brilliant achievements.”
“The party wants to determine historical truth,” said Yang Jisheng, a historian whose landmark book on the Great Leap Forward famine was banned in China. “It worries that if competing versions are allowed, then its legitimacy will be called into question.”
Many countries do not present their history in terms independent historians consider fully credible. American museums have been under pressure to account more fully for slavery. American Indians won a long battle to open their own museum on the Mall in Washington; other museums celebrate the westward expansion of the United States but give short shrift to the displacement and killing of American Indians.
Even so, few countries can compete with China in so completely suppressing the shades of gray about their past. One result is that the Chinese public rarely has access, even on the Internet, to versions of history that differ from party propaganda, and popular support for some nationalist causes is sometimes even stronger than the party’s own stances. Many Chinese are bewildered, for example, that some Tibetans or Uighurs are dissatisfied with Chinese rule or that Japanese and Taiwanese might have differing views of China’s claims on their territory.
This means that the National Museum, which has been granted unlimited access to treasures and relics of China’s long history, has failed to escape the political constraints that for centuries have hobbled the study of Chinese history. Then, as now, rulers used history to shape the present, a leitmotif that has marked almost every era.
“A public museum in China is seldom about the past,” said Hung Chang-tai, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who has written on the museum. “It is about the current image of the party and how the party wants itself to be seen.”
The Red Line
The National Museum has its roots in the Communist Party’s desire for a legacy. In his memoirs, Wang Yeqiu, who would become the museum’s director, recalls joining Communist troops as they entered Beijing in 1949 and making straight for a prison to secure a scaffold used in 1927 to hang one of the party’s founding members. The scaffold became the first item in the museum’s collection. But its opening in 1959 was marred by a problem that would haunt it to the present — politics. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai visited the proposed exhibition and said it did not emphasize the “red line”: the line of thought of Mao, the country’s supreme leader.
Over the next decades, the museum spent more time closed than open. It formally opened in 1961, then closed at the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, reopening in 1979 and then going through a series of closings and openings as leaders strove for an interpretation of the past they could accept. The exhibition on contemporary history closed for good in 2001 as officials began to see the museum as an anachronism that did not promote a modern image to the outside world. That year, Beijing won its bid to host the 2008 Olympics, and officials were worried that the national capital would not be a worthy host. A year earlier, a British research institute rated Beijing a third-tier city on a par with Warsaw and Bangkok. The report was widely discussed in China, with officials noting that Beijing had no noteworthy museums or galleries.
What Beijing needed, officials decided, was a world-class museum in time for the Olympics. In the past, the site on Tiananmen Square actually housed two institutions: the Museum of Chinese History and the Museum of the Chinese Revolution. In 2003, the two were combined and renamed the National Museum of China, excising the Communist-sounding nomenclature. The name change also allowed for shows that did not directly touch on Chinese history, although history was to remain its focus.
Officials created an international architectural competition won by the large German firm Gerkan, Marg and Partner. The Germans called for a huge atrium, in which Chinese history could be exhibited overlooking important sites of the country’s past and present. Construction was to begin in 2005.
But senior officials rejected the plan, setting off years of meetings and redesigns, according to an official in the Ministry of Culture who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. China’s cabinet, the State Council, weighed in, saying the new, arching roof would destroy the building’s original design. Other critics said the atrium was too grandiose, while the museum’s new director, himself an architect, wanted more floor space, according to participants in the meetings. The opening date was pushed back to Oct. 1, 2009, the 60th anniversary of Communist rule.
Aiming to Be the Biggest
All told, there were seven major revisions. In the end, they kept a grand entrance hall — 850 feet long and 100 feet high — linking the two old wings. But most of the original open area was now filled with a giant new building. One of the primary goals was to make the museum the world’s largest.
“I got a call asking how many square meters is the Louvre,” recalled Martin Roth, director of Dresden’s state museums and an informal consultant to the museum for a decade. “Then 10 minutes later another call asking how many square meters is the British Museum. I said, ‘You guys are sitting with the architects and are figuring out how to be the biggest, right?’ They laughed and said yes.”
Chinese officials are reticent about the new museum. Repeated requests over two months for interviews with the museum director or other senior officials were rebuffed. Instead, online publicity material was printed and faxed in response to written questions. But Tian Shanting, who runs the museum’s foreign affairs office, said the square footage was important.
“We feel we had a lot to show and need the space,” Mr. Tian said. “It’s not about being the biggest, but China does have 5,000 years of culture so it’s not inappropriate to be the biggest.”
Finally, in 2006, a member of the nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo, Li Changchun, gave the go-ahead and an official notice was issued by the State Council. Construction began in 2007, but the opening date was again pushed back until 2011.
As officials debated the architecture, they also scrutinized the content. Although the museum now has a broader focus than before — one exhibition in late April will survey Incan civilization — its centerpieces are two permanent exhibitions on Chinese history, one on its ancient past and one looking at the past 150 years.
The biggest — taking up a quarter of the entire exhibition space — is “Ancient China,” a mammoth survey of thousands of years of history scheduled to open April 15.
The exhibition walks a delicate line. Organized by Chinese dynasties, it tries to show how all of the 56 ethnic groups in today’s China have always worked together harmoniously. Even the Mongolian empire, which conquered China in the 12th century, is made part of the story. It is referred to as a precursor of today’s multicultural China.
“It ignores the conflicts, which real history shouldn’t do,” said an archaeology professor at Peking University who asked to remain anonymous because of the issue’s delicacy. “This is why I would not call this exhibition real history but propaganda.”
According to the archaeologist, who was consulted on the exhibition, a panel of experts considered other versions of history, but this was quickly rebuffed. Officials from the party’s Propaganda Department, who were observing the meetings, said the museum should adopt a policy to “emphasize precious objects.” That is reflected in the final product, which will feature 2,520 “precious objects,” including 521 “first-class precious objects.”
Politics, by contrast, defines the other exhibit, “The Road to Rejuvenation,” which recounts the history of China from the First Opium War of 1839 to the present day. This was the exhibit that in past years was fraught with the most blatant simplifications — and the new one is no different.
The general story line, ingrained in every Chinese student, is that China was humiliated by Western powers. Then some well-meaning but misguided patriots took up the fight until they were properly led by the Communists, whose inevitable victory in 1949 started China’s recovery. After “building socialism” during the Communists’ first 30 years in power, the country took off during the past 30 years of reform. There is no discussion of why the party dropped central planning policies in the late 1970s, or even that such a momentous shift took place.
In the 1990s, museum curators proposed a much franker look at the problems that led to the current era of reform. Initially, they designed a section called “10 years of tortuous development” on the 1950s and ’60s, including the Great Leap Forward’s devastating famine, according to Kirk Denton, a professor at Ohio State University who is writing a book on China’s museums. Curators proposed a similar section in the current exhibit, arguing that this era was decades in the past and the party was now strong enough to withstand criticism. That idea was rejected, however, after a lengthy debate, according to Ministry of Culture officials. In the end, the famine, widely regarded as the worst in recorded history, is only euphemistically mentioned by the phrase that “the project of constructing socialism suffered severe complications.” The Cultural Revolution was reduced to the photograph and brief caption.
“We wanted to celebrate China,” Mr. Tian said. “I think that’s understandable.”
Likewise, there is no mention of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 or the disgraced party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who helped pioneer economic reforms but was forced out of power after the unrest that year.
Instead, the exhibition features relatively anodyne objects like Deng’s cowboy hat and Mr. Hu’s bullhorn. It also displays “A double-edged sword inlaid with diamonds, presented to Hu Jintao from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.”
Some visitors said they had hoped for more. Zhang Zhencai, a 65-year-old retired storeroom manager in a logistics company, said he expected a closer look at the first 30 years of Communist rule.
“I wondered why there was not more on it,” Mr. Zhang said. “The younger generation should see all that history, so they are able to compare it to what we have today.” His wife, Wang Jusheng, however, said she was not surprised: “What happened in those years, especially the late 1950s and 1960s, were mostly errors.”
A Demanding Agenda
The difficulty in coming up with an innovative interpretation of China’s recent past suggests that the staff may have trouble filling the vast galleries with the variety and quality of exhibits characteristic of a world-class museum. The opening exhibition on the European Enlightenment, for example, will run for 12 months — an unusually long period of time that surprised the three German museums that organized it.
“It’s highly unusual, but the Chinese wanted it,” said Michael Eissenhauer, director of the State Museums of Berlin. To meet the request, German curators will have to find substitutes for up to a third of the objects, some of which were promised years ago for other exhibitions or which are too fragile to be exposed to light for 12 months.
The Enlightenment show, although tantalizing, will also avoid overt mention of the political ideas — such as universal human rights — that drove that period of European history. “It’s an art exhibit and not a political show,” Mr. Eissenhauer said. That means themes of individuality or rights will be alluded to in paintings or furniture but not explicitly discussed.
Broaching such topics, however, is likely to determine whether the National Museum of China joins the ranks of the world’s top museums, said Freda Murck, a Beijing-based art historian who has organized exhibitions for museums around the world. Ms. Murck said that what made a great museum was not its hardware but the quality and daring of its staff.
“What they need are passionate curators to go into those bronzes and textiles and find new interpretations,” Ms. Murck said. “Because a great museum depends on a great curatorial staff.”
Zhang Jing contributed research.
Originally published: April 3, 2011, The New York Times