A guest post from Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections, about his recent trip to China.
It is almost a year since Dr Lee Kai Hung’s generous gift to the University of Manchester with the intention of creating a new China Gallery at Manchester Museum. Having been asked to be lead curator on the project, it was incumbent upon me not only to familiarise myself with the collection of Chinese cultural material at the Manchester Museum, but also to get to know the country and its people. Thanks to the support and generosity of Mr James Davidson and the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, which has an endowment specifically to support research visits between the UK and China, I was able to visit China during the second half of October, 2018.
China and Chinese collections being outside my curatorial comfort zone, I must confess to having felt a little apprehensive but it turned out to be one of the most fulfilling work visits that I have made whilst working for the Museum. I was accompanied by Dean Whiteside, Head of Operations and Buildings, although we actually spent relatively little time together because we were booked on separate flights and stayed in different hotels and we saw different things in order to maximise the benefit of the visit.
After a 12-hour flight from Manchester to Beijing, Dean and I arranged to meet in Beihai Park, which lies to the west of the Forbidden City. Unfortunately, we were unable to communicate because our telephones didn’t work. Jetlag, fatigue and illness probably played their part and we later met at the Capital Museum. As I explored the park I was struck by its massive scale and the stunning architectural and landscape set-pieces. I was taking so many photographs I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t there to make a coffee table book about beautiful parks in China. And whilst I was practically the only foreigner (apart for Dean about an hour earlier) there I never felt at all uncomfortable.
In the afternoon Dean and I met the Director of Collection Management Dr Feng Hao and Shao Xinxin of the International Cooperation Department at the Capital Museum. After discussing our respective museums’ current projects we were shown the displays about early Beijing and Beijing social customs. I was fascinated by a diorama of a Chinese wedding party parade complete with honorific umbrellas. I wondered whether Manchester Museum’s Chinese Labour Corps umbrella, long since shorn of its textile or paper covering, might have looked something like this. I also noticed numerous depictions of the famous ‘boy on a qilin’ motif, which appears on one of the Chinese vases in the Manchester Museum collection.
The following day, still suffering from jetlag and despite feeling rather poorly, I had to go to Beijing Western railway station to buy a ticket on the fast train to go to Xi’an. With the cashier’s limited English and my schoolboy Mandarin I succeeded but it was not fluent. In the late afternoon I visited Tsinhua University where I met Prof Qen, Mu Ruifeng and the director of the Tsinhua Art Museum. They were very kind and hospitable and even arranged for me to meet people in Wuhan, Manchester’s twin city in China later during my visit.
The next day, a Sunday, there was an early start on an organised tour to visit the beautiful Ming tombs at Chang Ling, on the way to Badaling on the Great Wall. Perhaps I was just unlucky in the day I chose to go there but if you imagine the wall snaking across an empty landscape with the visitor looking out from a lonely a parapet you need to be aware it’s more like a elongated rugby scrum. With crowding at bottlenecks and large numbers of visitors I didn’t get very far. Badaling is a relatively easily accessible stretch of the Great Wall and it’s perhaps a victim of its own popularity. That said, sometimes you just have to be there to drink in a sense of place, heavily reconstructed though that section of the wall may be.
The following day I travelled to Xi’an in western China on the fast train (at one point I was travelling at 304km/h –rail operators in the UK take note). I hired a driver with a car to visit the Terracotta Army, Huaqing Hot Springs and Banpo prehistoric site. The Terracotta Army needs no introduction but being there is a very different experience from seeing photographs or watching a documentary. You are in the presence of an ancient Chinese army. They may be reassembled broken statues but as the current buzzword goes they have agency. It was just outside the site that I saw strikingly coloured fruit on the trees and learnt that they were persimmon, in which there is a considerable trade in Asia as snacks. Huaqing Hot Springs where the Tang emperor relaxed with his favourite concubine was yet another photo opportunity in which China abounds writ-large, with breath-taking arrangements of buildings, pools, trees and rocks. I also spent a fascinating morning in the Shaanxi Museum, seeing amazing the Tang Dynasty artefacts, including treasures from the River Oxus hoard. Sadly, I missed out on the Tang wall-paintings but that’s a good reason to go back hopefully next year.
In Wuhan I visited Hubei Provincial Museum and met the Director, Dr Fang Qin, and his team; I also made a very good contact in the person Karen Shi, Associate Professor of the Art History Department of Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. She and her students Irem and Daisy extended me every courtesy. One of the highlights of the Hubei Museum is the grave goods of the Marquis Yi of Zeng who lived in the 7th century BC. The set of bells on display are a thing of wonder. Again, the sheer scale of the museum building, especially the open space at the entrance where visitors gather was impressive. Karen, Iram and Daisy took me to see the Taoist Temple at Chung Chang on my last morning in Wuhan and introduced me to the lady in charge. I was surrounded by rich colours, incense, music and tai-chi.
After a couple of days in Wuhan, I pressed on to Shanghai where the British Council had kindly arranged for Dean and I to visit a centre for the elderly. I visited Shanghai Museum, Shanghai History Museum, Aurora Museum, and Guanfu Museum – at the latter I met the Director Dr Danny Zhang. At the massive Shanghai Museum I made a bee-line for the ceramics and was delighted to see an example of a meiping vase from the reign of Emperor Wan-li. I also saw the jade, numismatics and textiles galleries. Shanghai History Museum had some great AV sequences showing the construction of flood defences and locks for boats to pass through.
At the University of Tongji Dean and I met Prof Hongtao Zhou and his colleagues at Shanghai International Centre of Design and Innovation and, unexpectedly, were asked to take part in a seminar about Chinese art and design. For ten minutes or so we were skating on very thin ice indeed as we asked interested and interesting questions and made observations about recycling architectural materials in art projects and IKEA furniture in China.
One of my last formal appointments was a visit to Gubei Arts Centre, which caters for the elderly and encourages them to remain mentally active through culture. I met Pan Jin, Vice Secretary General UNESCO Creative City (Shanghai) and her team to discuss the new China Gallery at Manchester Museum.
My very last highlight from my visit to China was the trip back to Beijing. I flew from Shanghai to Beijing and having been put on an earlier flight I was able to spend the afternoon and evening seeing some of the sites I’d missed at the beginning of the visit: Tian-anman Square and Wanfujing. I took the early morning flight and arrived back in Manchester (because of the time difference) about 6am the following morning. I can honestly say this was one of the most stimulating and rewarding visits I have ever undertaken whilst working for the Museum. I am extremely grateful to Mr James Davidson and the KNH Centre for making this possible, to Esme Ward for encouraging me to go, and to all those amazing Chinese people I met who helped me during my time in China. I can’t wait to go back.