In the previous article, the top 20 Chinese museums worth visiting in China were introduced to you. Then, in this article, 14 niche China museums were selected that each represents a specific period in Chinese history, connecting them together to form a visible development context of Chinese history.
01 The Earliest China
If we were to compare different stages of Chinese history to different times of day, then the Liangzhu Civilization would be the pre-dawn. From childhood, the concept of "5000 years of Chinese civilization" has been deeply ingrained in Chinese minds. And Liangzhu marks the beginning of those 5000 years.
Before the emergence of Liangzhu civilization, what did China look like? Cultural relics such as Hemudu, Banpo and Hongshan can be found from the Yangtze River to Yellow River and even further north in Liaoning and Inner Mongolia.
Crossing over from culture to civilization, mark an entirely new stage in human social development: settlements continued to develop, forming embryonic forms of early cities; labor was effectively organized, and massive water conservancy projects with storage capacity reaching 46 million cubic meters (more than three West Lakes) were built to resist floods; meanwhile, surplus productivity was sufficient enough for a group of craftsmen dedicated solely to producing exquisite jade objects using ropes and quartz sands.
Erlitou Xia Dynasty Capital Relics
According to legend, Yu the Great led people in controlling floods and subsequently established China's first dynasty - the Xia Dynasty. With the excavation of the Erlitou site, these legends are gradually becoming a reality.
The Erlitou site, dating back approximately 3800-3500 years ago, has been recognized by many archaeologists and historians as the capital city of the Xia Dynasty.
Under continuous development of productivity,the process of civilization completed its transition from Neolithic Age to Bronze Age. Interactions between residents in different regions were no longer limited to single cities or settlements, and a primitive state began to take shape. This is where early China started.
02 The Bronze Age
In the early morning, as the sun rises, it is often shrouded in a veil of mist, just like the duality of civilization and barbarism during the Shang Dynasty.
When the Shang people under Pan Geng's leadership moved their capital to Yin (now known as Yinxu), it became undoubtedly the center of bronze civilization throughout East Asia. The influence of Shang civilization radiated from here to Hubei, Hunan and even as far away as Sanxingdui in Bashu. However, bloody sacrifices that involved killing dozens or even hundreds of people constantly remind us of the savagery and brutality of that era.
As a result, Zhou people continuously erased Shang's influence through "Jian Shang" means and ruled the country with emerging ritual system. The Eastern "Land of Rituals" was slowly rising.
Baoji Bronzeware Museum
City Baoji is known as "the starting point for eight hundred miles across Qinchuan," and its history is even older than Xi'an. The Zhou people who first started agricultural society and Qin people who established feudal dynasty all prospered from here.
With such rich historical accumulation, Baoji has become an unquestionable hometown for bronzeware. Therefore, Baoji Bronzeware Museum has also become China's largest bronzeware museum.
On this ritual wine vessel, He Zun, we found character "中国" which is so far one earliest written records using word “China”. Many treasures among domestic museums are also from Baoji such as Da Ke Ding from Shanghai Museum, Da Yu Ding from National Museum, Mao Gong Ding from Taipei Palace Museum etc.
Those bronze wares which once shone like gold (gold color being bronze’s original color; they were named 'bronze' because after being buried underground for thousands years they rusted green on surface) were the supreme offerings that ancient people made to their gods, and also an immortal heritage left to us across time.
Chengdu Jinsha Site Museum
Around the time of Shang and Zhou dynasties in Central Plains, after part of Sanxingdui civilization disappeared, some surviving immigrants went southward and established a new country located at Jinsha in Chengdu region. Like Sanxingdui people, Jinsha people were also fond of hammering gold into thin gold foil for sacrificial activities dedicated to gods.
The pattern of Sun Bird Gold Ornament unearthed from Jinsha site has been designated as a symbol of Chinese cultural heritage. And jade Cong discovered here is closely related to Liangzhu culture. Perhaps there was a group of Liangzhu immigrants who traveled upstream along the Yangtze River more than 1500 kilometers all the way westward and merged with ancient Shu people.
03 The Ideal State of Qin and Han
The people of ancient Qin, who lived on the western frontier, conquered and united the warring states one by one facing the direction of the sunrise in the east. Although Emperor Qin Shi Huang's great achievements only lasted for 14 years before falling apart, his ideal country, a unified Chinese regime was continued by all subsequent dynasties including Han Dynasty.
In historical records, Han emperors often awarded their officials with gold. The China under Han rule seemed like a "golden kingdom" that existed only in Westerners' imaginations. In those tombs where kings and nobles were dressed in golden thread armor praying for eternal glory and immortality, we can still catch a glimpse of that magnificent era.
Nanchang Han Dynasty Haihunhou Museum
In 74 BC, Emperor Wu of Han's son Liu He died at just 21 years old without leaving any heirs. Therefore, Huo Guang, who controlled state affairs, helped Changyi King Liu Che ascend to the throne as emperor. However, this new emperor made 1,127 absurd decisions within just 27 days after taking office; therefore Huo Guang deposed him and exiled him to Nanchang in Jiangxi Province where he became known as Haihunhou.
Despite being dethroned, however, the number of burial objects unearthed from Haihunhou tomb far exceeded what an ordinary marquis should have had according to regulations. There were as many as 478 pieces of goldware alone weighing a total weight up to115 kg. In fact, such noble tombs filled with luxury goods have always been coveted targets for grave robbers.For example, in merely four years after Emperor Wu passed away, some burial objects from his tomb appeared on sale in Chang'an. As most imperial tombs are already emptied, Haihunhou tomb still preserves abundant cultural relics.
Qian Xi Nan Museum
What kind of country is Yelang? This country, which is almost synonymous with arrogance, was ultimately conquered by the Han Dynasty according to sparse records in historical books.
In Yelang's former territory located in southwestern Guizhou Province, there are Chu's Yongzhong (a kind of ancient Chinese musical instrument) and Central Plains' bronze chariot and horse as well as Ba Shu region’s money tree ornaments and even short swords with Yunnan and Southeast Asian styles. This land deep in the mountains has become a crossroad for cultural exchanges.
04 Anchors of Faith Drifting in a Chaotic World
The weather in a day may not always be sunny and bright; it can also include strong winds and sudden rain. As the mighty Yangtze River washed away the heroes of Three Kingdoms, China's unified Western Jin Dynasty soon ushered in a 272-year-long period of great division due to unprecedented chaos that led to frequent wars and people barely surviving.
However, it was precisely during this period that collisions between different ethnic groups and cultures, as well as people's desire for spiritual support in troubled times, gave rise to an unparalleled flourishing of Buddhist art.
The Luo Yang Museum of Ancient Tombs
The Luo Yang Museum of Ancient Tombs is built on Mount Beimang, which is covered with tombs belonging to Luoyang residents from Eastern Zhou Dynasty until Northern Song Dynasty. Nearly 50 emperors were buried in Mangshan and surrounding areas over time.
The museum is our country’s first thematic museum mainly displaying typical tombs throughout history. It includes Emperor Xiaowen's son - Emperor Xuanwu’s Jingling tomb located at this site.
In the exhibition hall of the museum, many tombs are restored according to their original appearance on both sides of the walkway. In ancient people's eyes who believed “death should be treated just like life,” these large or small burial chambers were constructed by them for their loved ones' afterlife.
The Northern Qi dynasty where famous handsome Prince of Lan Ling Gao Changgong belonged was another peak period for art during South-North Dynasties following North Wei dynasty.
The noble Gao family came from Qingzhou city which became the third-largest city under Northern Qi rule except capital Ye City (now within Handan City Hebei Province) and military fortress Jinyang (now Taiyuan Shanxi).
Qingzhou, under Northern Qi rule, was far from war and enjoyed prosperity. Buddhist art thrived here. The Longxing Temple Buddha statue discovered in 1996 is one of the most important discoveries in Buddhist art archaeology in the 20th century. With its smiling eyes and curved eyebrows, "Qingzhou Smile" rewrote Eastern art history. As a result, Qingzhou City Museum became the only county-level museum among China's first-class museums.
05 The Unforgettable Golden Age of the Tang Dynasty
Whether it's the splendid Chang'an, or the border city, the flourishing era of Tang Dynasty is forever etched in every Chinese person's heart.
Famen Si Museum
In historical circles, there has long been a mystery surrounding what exactly Mi Se Ci (secret colour porcelain, 秘色瓷) refers to. This type of ceramic was as mysterious as its name suggested. It wasn't until 1987 that archaeologists discovered an entry within a record book stating: "Seven bowls with secret-coloured rims; two have silver linings inside each bowl; six stacked dishes also with secret colours." The royal family under Li Tang’s rule who were devoted to Buddhism decided to offer these unparalleled imperial treasures to Famen Temple for safe keeping.
Secret colour porcelain was lauded in Song Dynasty, they regarded it as being among Yue ware pottery’s best items. In fact, early Yue ware glazes differed from our imagination of blue-green tones - they had more yellow hues than anything else. Only secret colour porcelain contains warm shades resembling lake water which represents the pinnacle level of blue-green ceramics produced during Tang Dynasty.
Due to Turpan's arid climate, this region has preserved numerous fragile paper documents providing us with glimpses into everyday life thousands years ago. A class of documents called "Shi Gu Wen Shu (market appraisal records, 市估文书)" details the prices of various commodities in Turpan during Tang Dynasty, and can be considered an encyclopedia for recording social life during the medieval era.
Commodities from every corner of China and beyond gathered here through Silk Road trade routes. There were products such as Fuling from central China, cloth from Changzhou, even dried seaweed produced on the Korean Peninsula could be found at very low prices - a small amount (about 15 grams) cost only one copper coin which was equivalent to one jin of rice based on commodity price back then.
06 Magnificent Porcelain of Song and Yuan
The historian Mr. Chen Yinke once lamented that the culture of the Chinese nation has evolved over thousands of years, culminating in the Song Dynasy. It is like the warm sunshine in the afternoon, no longer intense but with a hint of gentle sentimentality. The mild Song porcelain is a magnificent masterpiece left to us from that era.
In the Yuan Dynasty that followed, blue and white porcelain-making technology matured to perfection. In 2011, a Yuan blue and white meiping vase depicting Xiao He chasing Han Xin under the moonlight set an auction record for Chinese ceramics at HKD 840 million and remains unbroken today. The exorbitant price undoubtedly confirms most directly the artistic value of Yuan blue and white porcelain.
Sichuan Song Porcelain Museum
In 1253 AD, after subjugating Yunnan Province, Mongol troops began to attack Sichuan from both north and south sides. During the war, an illustrious family living in today's Jingyu Village in Suining City buried their precious porcelain in the earth in anticipation of returning home one day after their escape. They left in such a hurry that they did not even have time to add a few more layers of packaging for these fragile porcelain, just hastily buried them in the soil and done.
Unfortunately, they never got another chance to restart their treasure hunt but instead left this blind box of history for us thousands of years later. This cache containing 355 Longquan celadon ware pieces along with other wares such as 598 Qingbai ware pieces became China's largest unearthed collection among Southern Song kiln sites.
Established by Mongols, Yuan Dynasty was an empire unprecedentedly huge in territorial size throughout Chinese history. Materials used for making blue and white porcelain came from Persian areas nowadays; since its color scheme complements Islamic aesthetics well enough hence Yuan Dynasty blue and white porcelain saw high export volumes too. Nowadays museums with most preserved Yuan porcelain are Topkapi Palace Museum in Turkey and the National Museum of Iran.
Meanwhile, with 19 Yuan blue and white porcelain pieces discovered among its kiln site, Gao'an City which is an obscure small city located in Jiangxi Province's Yichun City ranks first nationwide and third worldwide.
07 The Residual Glow of the Dynasty
As time has progressed since the Ming and Qing Dynasties, historical events that were only previously found in textbooks have become increasingly traceable. It is like a childhood memory when listening to stories from grandparents. These bygone dynasties are not so distant from us.
Ming Tombs Museum
Located approximately 45 kilometers northwest of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming dynasty are the burial grounds for thirteen emperors other than Emperor Jingtai following their move to Beijing during the Ming Dynasty.
The imperial tombs serve not only as a resting place for deceased emperors but also as a site where future generations can pay homage to their ancestors' great accomplishments. In 1956, archaeological excavations on Wanli Emperor’s mausoleum unearthed precious artifacts such as his gold-thread wing-shaped crown and Empress’s phoenix crown.
Confucius Temple and The Imperial College Museum
In ancient times, studying was almost synonymous with passing imperial examinations across China; therefore schools around ancient China were often built near Confucian temples.
Within Confucius Temple stands 198 steles inscribed with names who passed imperial examinations over nearly six centuries beginning from Yuan dynasty until late Qing dynasty era which recorded this prosperous period when people gained access into officialdom via academic meritocracy . Famous historical figures such as Zhang Juzheng , Lin Zexu ,and Zeng Guofan can be seen clearly on those steles.
The Imperial College Museum, located next to the Confucian Temple, was the highest educational institution throughout China during Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Not only did it accept students from all ethnic groups across China but also offered places for overseas students. During Ming and Qing times, scholars from Ryukyu Kingdom, Goryeo, Annam and Siam came here to study; there was even a female overseas student named Gulumei who studied here.
In fact, with such an expansive history in China, it is impossible for just 14 niche China museums to encompass everything. There are more treasure troves of museums waiting for people to explore!