Museum Stories

7 Amazing Chinese Museums

Joanna Kaszubowska 3 June 2022 min Read

Thanks to the Internet, we can virtually explore the great museums that China has to offer. The country has hundreds of museums worth visiting, so the selection was tough and is fully subjective. Below you’ll find 7 amazing Chinese museums that hopefully will inspire you to explore more – from the traditional and well-known gems to the slightly less known ones. Nothing can stop us from making plans to visit in the future and exploring the world of art!

1. The Imperial Palace Museum and Forbidden City, Beijing

There is no other way to open the list of 7 amazing Chinese museums. It is by far the most stunning gem among the museums in China. The location of the palace carried cosmic significance according to ancient Chinese astronomers. It was considered the pivot of the terrestrial world, correlated with the Pole Star. The palace was built from 1406 to 1420 by the third emperor of the Ming dynasty – the Yongle Emperor – who, upon usurping the throne, moved his capital northward from Nanjing to Beijing. A year after the last emperor was expelled from the complex in 1924, the museum officially opened.

The collections of the Palace Museum originate from the Qing imperial collection and include ceramics, paintings, calligraphy, bronzes, timepieces, jades, palace paraphernalia, ancient books, and historical documents. Currently, the total number of works of art in the Museum’s collection exceeds 1.8 million. But let’s not forget that this architectural complex is a treasure in and of its own.

You can explore the museum’s collection online, just to plan your next trip.

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2. The National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), Beijing

Interestingly NAMOC is the only national art museum of plastic arts in China. Built between 1958 and 1963, it represents a very different era and approach than the Palace Museum. It is a monument of the People’s Republic of China and its approach to art, research, and conservation. According to the museum’s website: “It is the highest hall of fine arts in China and also a public cultural service platform.” While its collection is a fraction of the one at Imperial Palace, at over 110,000 pieces, it strives to represent what’s best in Chinese traditional and modern art, as well as some of the western imports. 

In 2013 the museum announced a winner of an architecture competition for its new building, as a site close to the Bird’s Nest stadium. The competition itself caused quite a stir in the art world, with such titans of the architecture world as Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, MAD Architects, and the winner Jean Nouvel. The construction started in 2014, but I struggled to find any updates on its progress and how it may have been impacted by the pandemic. 

If you happen to be in Beijing you’ll find it convenient that the old NAMOC building is just around the corner from The Palace Museum. But if you don’t have a chance to travel, you can still explore the museum’s collection online.

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3. The Shanghai Museum, Shanghai

Let’s venture out of Beijing for a while. The Shanghai Museum focuses on pre-modern Chinese arts. As an institution, it has a colorful history; its collection originated from the civil war and subsequent confiscations, then was enriched by donations which came to a grinding halt during the Cultural Revolution. Since its establishment in 1952, it has been in three different buildings, finding its final home in 1996. 

Once more the building itself is interesting. Designed by Xing Tonghe and inspired by the shape of an ancient traditional bronze cooking vessel called a ding, the building has a round top and a square base, symbolizing the ancient Chinese perception of the world as “round sky, square earth”.

The collection is extremely varied, with sections dedicated to painting, bronze, jade, sculpture, ceramics, and calligraphy. You can explore them online, and the museum also shares a decent pool of interesting multimedia, including exhibition tours and lectures.

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4. Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai (MoCA Shanghai), Shanghai

Staying in Shanghai, let’s tune into the spirit of the city with some contemporary art. MoCA Shanghai was founded in 2005 by the Samuel Kung Foundation as the first non-profit, independent, contemporary art institution in Shanghai. The museum aims to build a platform for artists worldwide to display their works while being a window for the domestic public to appreciate avant-garde art and design at home and abroad. It includes both established artists and well as exciting, talented newcomers into the art world. 

In fact, in 2015 the museum created a dedicated space for young artists – MoCA Pavilion, which offers a range of programs to nurture innovation and experimentation. It also allows the public to freely interact with the bravest and newest in art. 

The museum also has a pretty strong fashion angle, with past exhibitions including Betty Catroux – Yves Saint Laurent Feminine Singular, Miss Dior Love’n’Roses, Timeless Beauty with Van Cleef & Arpels, and Dior the Art of Color, among others. It also hosts a series of lectures under the umbrella of fashion academy. They can be accessed online, if you’re interested and not in Shanghai.

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5. Jinsha Site Museum, Chengdu

Let’s now get off the beaten track for a while and travel inland to Chengdu. Here we can find a museum that sprang up in 2007 on the site of the first major archeological discovery in China in the 21st century, the Jinsha site. The site was the capital of the ancient Shu state, the center of the ancient civilization center in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River from the 12th century BC to the 7th century BC. 

The site comprises large-scale foundations of the entire city, and a number of artifacts have also been found to add to that. Among the unearthed precious cultural relics are gold, bronze, jade, stone, ivory objects and lacquerware, tens of thousands of pottery pieces, tons of ivory, and thousands of wild boar tusks and antlers. Compared with other contemporaneous sites in the world, the Jinsha site might be the only one with such a quantity of gold and jade artifacts and the most bountiful amount of ivories.

Covering the remains of Jinsha site, the museum serves to protect, research, and display the Jinsha culture and ancient Shu civilization.

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6. Sifang Art Museum, Nanjing

Moving on to Nanjing, let’s visit Sifang Art Museum. It is a special place, a refuge dedicated to contemporary art and architecture, providing artists and audiences with time and space to focus on art without all the distractions of the modern world. The project is the result of immense collaborative work, commissioning over twenty award-winning architects and artists over the course of ten years to construct a complex comprised of functional spaces, as well as permanent and temporary art exhibition venues. Architects that contributed include Steven Holl, Irata Isozaki, Liu Jiakun, Gary Chang, Ettore Sottsass, David Adjaye, Wang Shu, SANNA, Mathias Klotz and Ai Weiwei, among others.

In their own words:

Art and architecture exist harmoniously with nature here, and the visitor is able to not only experience contemporary architectural spaces and art works, but also meditate and seek spiritual satisfaction away from the maddening claustrophobia of urban centers.

Sifang is also our response to China’s rapid urbanization and the profit-maximizing mentality. As the landscape of Chinese cities is quickly changed by the construction of many repetitive architecture designs at minimal cost, we felt obliged to do something different, to “break the mold” and inject a new architectural and artistic breath. We feel originality and creativity are integral parts of people’s lives, and these are the core underlying values we aim to convey via such a project.

Museum’s website.

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7. Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an

This fascinating historical museum has an interesting approach, they follow the principle of “no charge but not no tickets”. This means there are 9000 tickets distributed each day and they have to be booked online, you cannot just show up and buy the ticket at the entrance. 

Shaanxi was the ancient imperial capital of China, having been the seat of more than 13 feudal dynasties, including the Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. The Shaanxi History Museum is situated to the northwestern side of the Tang-dynasty Wild Goose Pagoda in the southern suburb of Xi’an City. The museum has a huge permanent collection of historical artifacts the includes bronze wares, pottery figures, mural paintings in Tang tombs, a large number of pottery Tang dynasty tomb figures, as well as some of the famous Terracotta Army figures.

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This list above is of course just a small taste of what Chinese museums have to offer to art lovers. There are certainly many important museums that we did not include to keep the list manageable, but if you want to explore more try for starters: The National Museum of China, The Nanjing Museum, Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum (aka Terracotta Army Museum), Hong Kong Museum of History, Potala Palace, Hunan Museum or Henan Museum (yes, they are two different places!).

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