I was recently talking with a Chinese friend in Minnesota who had just returned from a road trip to New York and Washington with her husband. “Tell me something interesting you have observed in your travels around the US this year,” I said to her.
“Every little town has a museum,” she told me. “In China,” she said, “only the government runs museums and they are mostly about ancient history. But here, there’s a museum about everything.”
I thought it was a brilliant observation.
Shortly after that conversation, I ran across this short film at China File about a man in Sichuan who runs a bunch of small museums near Chengdu. These museums house millions of items he has collected over the years, many of which represent events and eras the government would rather people forget about. The title of the film is “Collecting Insanity.” From the introduction:
Every country has a past it likes to celebrate and another it would rather forget. In China, where history still falls under the tight control of government-run museums and officially approved textbooks, the omissions appear especially stark. An unusual museum dedicated largely to what is absent in China’s self-presentation is the subject of Joshua Frank’s short film “Collecting Insanity.” Frank tours the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, of Fan Jianchuan, an ex-official and real estate magnate, in the town of Anren, near Chengdu. The group of exhibits, named after Fan himself, display their owner’s collection of millions of historical artifacts, gathered over a lifetime of obsessive accumulation. Fan’s museum displays objects from various historical events, including the officially memorialized Sino-Japanese War and the far more taboo fallout of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.
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After yesterday’s post about the China History Podcast, I decided to do some more posts about Chinese history this week.
Unless you’re a Chinese or World War II history buff, you may not know that the US military had a fairly robust presence in China during the War. The famous “Flying Tigers” had bases and personnel in several cities in SW China, including Kunming and Chengdu.
This article from Business Insider features a number of photos that were taken by US servicemen in China. They provide an interesting glimpse of what the country looked like in the late 1940’s.
A description from the article:
“In 1941 before the United States entered World War II, 300 young Americans were secretly trained to combat the Japanese Air Force in China. The American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Airforce, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, was comprised of pilots drawn from the U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.
In the days after Pearl Harbor, the group went on to capture the public imagination in both China and the United States with their daring tactics and distinctive airplanes painted with shark teeth.
Members of the squadron (most prominently, William L. Dibble and H. Allen Larsen) took a huge collection of color photographs that depict the nation adopting new urban and modern modes of living along with the rural practices of the past.”
I am currently teaching a course on Chinese history and culture at Taylor University in Indiana. In my class this morning I had the students watch episode 1 of a fantastic (but old — 1990) TV series called “The Genius that was China.”
Here is the description of the series, from the Hulu Plus site:
China in the 13th century was the richest, most powerful, most technologically advanced civilization on earth. NOVA looks at how China achieved what it did, and what in Chinese politics, culture and economy kept it from doing more.
The full episode is also available on YouTube:
If you are interested in learning about some of the scientific and technological inventions and innovations of ancient China, I highly recommend this series.
When I teach Chinese history, my focus is on connection points between China’s past and the present. In re-watching this series to prepare for this class, I was reminded of the key role it played in shaping my understanding of China.