warped sense of history

China is a place that prides itself as being one of the oldest most civilized places on the planet, yet most people I know wouldn’t consider dropping by the Shanghai Museum to actually see that history. True, the collection is slightly unremarkable, considering the destruction of much Chinese heritage in the 60s and 70s. In some ways, maybe we should be grateful the Guomingdang ran off with as much as they did.

There are more pieces to the puzzle of life and development in China. The overwhelming feeling I had at the Shanghai Museum is that it’s sparse. It’s well laid-out with satisfactory variety, and yet for a place that boasts a 5000-year history it seems lacking in some way. Apparently the only markers of that history are bronze serving ware, porcelain plates, various alcohol vessels, painting, calligraphy, stamps, furniture, and coins. Granted, visual arts and writing have always been marks of high culture in China, but it feels rather distilled, almost to the point of brackishness.

China’s long-running dynastic history made a country quite the economic center of the world right up until 1820 (Kristof/Wudunn). This meant forward thinking military and scientific practices up until China began to backpedal and close itself in.

This is an era of history China should seek to show off because it showcases practical innovations that did change the world. True, in China many of these things are common knowledge, but they should be compiled in a way that captures the public. It would be a monument of honor for natives and a mark for true awareness and understanding from “outsiders.”

Let’s look at some excellent books that examine this history. As mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of Thunder from the East, though this book covers all of Asia. The River at the Center of the World is an excellent examination of both land, waterways, and history in China. When China Ruled the Seas speaks to China’s naval prowess, and finally The Genius of China is a mixed bag but excellent jumping off point for more science and technology info. China enthusiasts mostly write these books, and I can understand that since they’re in English. There just doesn’t seem to be an active consistent desire to put this information out to the average person here in China, and less desire to make it an experience for people.

I once took a class in Chinese Modern History at Mt. Holyoke with Jonathan Lipman. At one point he asked us what American high schoolers should know about China. I think that many world innovations came out of this culture as well as some of the most dynamic political history that I’ve ever read about. China is not just pandas, tea, mandarin collars, and fine porcelain; but those are a part of a wider picture. I would be just as wrong to talk about the US as a place of guns, obesity, and rap. Still, that’s the way that many people here see the US. We all perpetuate this culture of simplifications, which is fine and dandy when you stay in your country/city/house, but it doesn’t work so well when you’re making international relations decisions, or seeking to educate an adopted child about their country of origin.

It’s my opinion that china is desperately in need of some source to honor its heritage. I like museums because they put everything together, but they are not the only way to go. As it is, we’re left with places like the Shanghai Museum. For all its architectural splendor, most of my friends laugh at the thought of me spending a day there. “There’s nothing really interesting there,” my friend writes in chat. I’m interested in what kind of experiential collective of things would be interesting while remaining a faithful historical resource.

In some ways I think of stuff like the diverse activities and resources available in most museums across the US. They work very hard to maintain their own importance and revenue in cities across the US. This is also true of many libraries. China doesn’t have this kind of depth in its offerings, but that may have to do with the outstanding people resource in this country. There are always enough tickets sold at the door, and always enough funding coming from the government and souvenirs to make expansion into other areas really unnecessary. Maybe that’s why Shanghai’s people don’t go to and don’t think too much about the museum except as a neat piece of architecture.

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