Often neglected by foreign tourists intent on seeing the world renowned Forbidden City, the National Museum of China (situated merely minutes away from the entrance of the Forbidden City) is a true gem of Beijing that should not be missed. With more than 1 million artifacts on display and around 8 million annual visitors, the National Museum is both one of the largest and one of the most visited museums in the world despite being overlooked by some.
The Museum occupies an imposing building that sits to the east of Tiananmen Square. Even the building itself is steeped in history – having been constructed in 1959 during the Great Leap Forward as one of the Ten Great Buildings celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The collection inside is equally impressive. From oracle bones (which contain inscriptions of the earliest forms of Chinese writing) to individual warriors from the First Emperor’s Terracotta Army to weapons from the Opium Wars, the museum boasts a variety of priceless and well-preserved artifacts from every dynasty in Chinese history.
One area the Museum pays particular attention to is Chinese inventions throughout the ages. In fact, a recent Chinese study concluded that ancient China had achieved no fewer than 88 scientific breakthroughs and engineering feats of global significance. The list includes plenty that many in the West would find surprising or dubious, such as the decimal system, crossbow, the stirrup, and even the game of football (soccer).
In a day and age where the ‘made in China’ label seem omnipresent, it’s easy to forget that ancient China has indeed contributed enormously to the scientific advancement of mankind. Although some of the study’s claims are certainly suspicious, there is no question that the ‘Four Great Inventions’ – of the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing – were used in ancient China long before they emerged in the West. After all, it was the eminent British scientist and historian Joseph Needham who first identified the four great inventions in the 1950s – before which point pretty much all in the West assumed they were the products of European minds.
The National Museum, for instance, has a healthy collection of printed books dating from the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. These works perfectly display the collective marvels of papermaking technology and movable printing. When the first forms of paper appeared in Han China (around 1st century A.D), Europe was still using papyrus. It took more than 1000 years for papermaking technology to diffuse to the West, when it reached Spain. Similarly, woodblock printing in China was utilised as early as the 1st century A.D while movable printing was invented and widely used during the Song period in the 11th century – four hundred years before the appearance of the Gutenberg Bible in Europe.
Perhaps the most famous and ironic invention to have come out China is the gunpowder. Discovered in the 9th century A.D by Chinese alchemists searching for the elixir of immortality (the Chinese word for gunpowder is ‘fire medicine’), what they came across instead is a compound that ended lives prematurely rather than prolonging them. This technology was later perfected by the Europeans and used against the Chinese and other unfortunate peoples across the globe.
Despite having such an amazing collection from all periods of Chinese history, the National Museum lacks good quality English labels on most of the items. To make the most use of your time, therefore, you should really consider hiring one of Newman Tours’ expert guides in order to truly appreciate the place. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0086 (0) 138-1777-0229 to book to-day!