Part 2 of 4
Part 1: Museums in Chengdu
Part 3: Museums in Sichuan
Part 4: Museums in Chongqing
The Sanxingdui Museum (Guanghan)
The nearly 4,000-year-old artifacts on display in the Sanxingdui Museum comprise an archaeological rarity in many respects, most of all, perhaps, because the collection of ornate bronze masks and idols turn a longstanding myth into reality. Thirty years ago, the existence of an ancient Shu civilization in Sichuan was based on little more than folklore and conjecture. But in the 1980s, farmers near Guanghan struck pits laden with some of the most sophisticated bronze carvings in the world.
Sanxingdui is now thought to be the site of the capital of the ancient Shu, and the museum is as impressive as the findings are significant. Set among pleasant landscaped gardens and small streams, Sanxingdui's main attractions are its collections of bronze masks and figurines as well as earthenware, jade, and lithic items found in the dig.
The Shu culture is still shrouded in mystery: Historians cannot explain why the site was abandoned sometime between 3,200 and 2,800 years ago, though similar archaeological findings at Jinsha, makes southern migration the likeliest explanation. None of the artifacts found at Sanxingdui have revealed a script or writing system, which, while in itself is a mystery, also makes it harder to provide answers. Regardless of these unsolved mysteries, Sanxingdui finally gives Shu culture a starting point.
— Joseph McDevitt
Tuesday to Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entrance: RMB80.
Buses to Guanghan (广汉) regularly leave from the Zhaojue Bus Station (昭觉寺车站), (30 to 60 minutes, RMB10/15). From the Guanghan Bus Station, a 15-minute ride on the No. 6 bus drops will take you directly to the museum entrance. Alternatively, a taxi directly there will cost around RMB150.
Free English-language audio tours are available (a refundable RMB200 deposit is required) as are guided tours in English and Japanese (RMB120 per person).
Jianchuan Museum Cluster (Anren)
The Jianchuan Museum Cluster comprises nearly a dozen exhibition halls, spanning four themes—Age of Red, Folk Customs, War of Resistance, and the 2008 earthquake—and several outdoor plazas. The Red Age Living Necessities Hall houses a sprawling collection of Cultural Revolution-era artifacts—radios, dishes, a bicycle, a sewing machine, clocks, letters, newspapers, and a spread of many miniature Mao Zedong busts.
The War of Resistance halls feature fairly typical war-museum fare—soldiers' uniforms, artillery, lots of binoculars, handwritten notes, and tons and tons of photographs. This is particularly true in The Hall of the Heroes of the "Flying Tigers," an unapologetic homage to the American soldiers who were based in China during the Second World War.
In the Folk Customs series, visitors can view a traditional furniture hall and a "Hall of the Three-inch Golden Lotus," also translated as "Gallery of Women's Tiny Shoes." Inside are hundreds of Qing Dynasty-era silk slippers for bound feet and an "erotic" chair used for copulation in the 1800s—foot binding had strong sexual connotation. The second floor of the hall discusses the end of the foot-binding custom, starting with the wartime need for women in the workforce and ending during the Cultural Revolution, when it was made illegal.
The newer hall focuses on the 2008 earthquake and was constructed amid some controversy over the artifacts its temporary predecessor initially displayed. The Jianchuan Museum claims to be the largest collection of private museums in China and is financed by real-estate tycoon Fan Jianchuan. The cluster seems to be a work in progress, with new halls and features occasionally being added.
Jianchuan Museum Cluster Daily, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tickets are RMB20 per hall; RMB80 for eight; or RMB100 for all of them; half-price for students with valid ID; free for children less than 1.2 meters. Attendants punch holes in the RMB100 tickets at the door of each hall you enter; if you do not visit all halls in one day you're allowed to come back on another day (within the same year) on the same ticket. Audio and live tours are available. At least three hours to view all halls is recommended. 建川博物馆聚落 大邑县安仁镇 Tel. 88318000 Official English website
Founded in approximately 620, during the Tang Dynasty, Anren's well-preserved mansions lend to its national reputation as a historical town. Most buildings date to the late Qing Dynasty (early 20th century), with Liu's Manor, considered the country's best-preserved example of a feudal landowner's mansion, the most well-known among them. In total, there are 27 such mansions, some of which have been converted to museums. At the end of the lane, climb the rickety stairs to the second floor of the memorabilia shop to leaf through 1980s gossip magazines featuring photos of a young Jackie Chan. Opposite this shop is a cinema that both plays films and houses a movie memorabilia hall, complete with film reels of early 20th century films.
Anren Old Town Museum Lane Daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free entrance. Anren Guzhen, Dayi Xian 大邑县安仁古镇
Buses depart to Anren every 40 minutes from Jinsha Station; buses to Dayi (RMB13) depart from the same station more frequently. From Dayi, passengers can take a public bus No. 11 (RMB3), shared minivan (RMB4.5 per person, stops along the way), taxi, or private car (RMB30 to 40) to Anren. The total journey lasts approximately 2 hours. The last Chengdu-bound bus departs at 6 p.m. from Anren Tourist Center and at 6:30 p.m. from the Dayi Bus Station. Alternatively, buses also depart for Anren from Chengdu's Shiyangchang Station, Shuangliu Station, and Chongzhou Station.
Museum of Sichuan Cuisine (Pixian)
The Museum of Sichuan Cuisine celebrates one of the most revered of all Chinese cuisines, presenting archaeological finds from as early as 475 B.C., mostly various incarnations of dishes, alcohol pitchers, chopsticks, forks, and spoons as well as some larger items such as stoves from the third century. Alongside these, behind the glass are books of authors notable for their contribution to Sichuan cuisine as well as a menu from the first overseas Sichuan restaurant, which opened in New York in the early 1980s. Pixian was chosen as a site for the museum in part because it is home to one of the quintessential components of Sichuan cuisine—douban (bean paste).
Texts place the objects in an historical context that traces the development of the province's cuisine from the West Han period, when the Bashu people living in the area still ate raw food, to present-day cuisine, culminating in a wall covered in photos of modern-day street-side Sichuan restaurants in Chengdu. Along the way events such as the invention of paocai, the introduction of chili peppers to the region (it happened only a few hundred years ago), major shifts in taste, and technological advances—pottery and glazing techniques, the invention of utensils, the development of paper money, and so forth—are highlighted. There is also one section highlighting Sichuan cuisine in the local literary tradition, with odes to Sichuan's cuisine by poets Li Bai, Du Fu, and others.
Also on site is an "Interactive Demonstration Hall," which is actually a quasi-upscale restaurant that offers quite decent food prepared in a huge, glass-walled kitchen.
Museum of Sichuan Cuisine
Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance: RMB60
Gucheng Zhen, Pixian County 成都川菜博物馆 郫县古城镇 Tel. 87918008.
From the Jinsha Station, take the 305 to Pixian Bei Men/郫县北门 (around 2 hours) and transfer to the 363 to Gucheng Zhen (古城镇) or take a cab for approximately RMB20 directly to the museum. Buses also run from Chadianzi and Jiulidi to Pixian Bei Men.
West China Rare Insect Museum (Qingcheng Shan)
The West China Rare Insect Museum is one of the region's newest additions to the museum pool. Extending over 4,000 square meters spread out over two floors and claims to house Asia's largest butterfly collection (and has thus dubbed itself "Butterfly Valley"). Including its 700 butterfly species (covering a reported 95 percent of China's known species), the museum boasts a collection of 20,000 insect specimens. The collection is largely the fruits of museum head Zhao Li's 20-plus years of collecting rare insects.
Many of the 20,000 are duplicates of the same species, pinned down in at best absurd and at worst laughable arrangements, including one smiley face. Visitors are greeted at the entrance by a "double helix" of nameless, faceless butterflies who seem to have been sacrificed for the sake of decoration. But some of the bugs are certainly visually interesting, particularly the species that disguise themselves as branches or leaves, and the enormous and ferocious-looking long-horned beetles, of which there are many on display. Electric blue, dinner-plate-sized butterflies, and others with amazingly intricate designs ingrained on their wings, also elicit oohs and ahs from viewers.
A good portion of the insects are unidentified in any language. Multimedia stations are arranged around the first floor of the museum—low-resolution touch screens that are text-heavy but don't necessarily correlate with the actual specimens on display.
West China Rare Insect Museum
Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 5 p.m. Free entrance.
Fifteen trains run daily between Chengdu and Qingcheng Shan from 7 a.m. to 7:45 p.m. (45 minutes, RMB15). From the Qingcheng Shan station, walk along the tourist path for approximately 1 km until you reach the Qingcheng Shan Tourist Center, near the main entrance to the mountain and the Howard Johnson Hotel.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 54 ("museums"). Photos by Leo Chen and Dan Sandoval