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Cradle of Civilization

Archeological finds in Qingpu District suggest that contrary to conventional wisdom, Shanghai was a wealthy, thriving town as far back to as the Tang Dynasty. And now the innovative new Qingpu Museum will take people back to that period.

Overlooking the newly built Qingpu Museum from the Qingpu TV Tower, a butterfly sits poised, its wings quivering in the light spring breeze. When you walk around it, the "butterfly wings" magically morph into showy petals.

With a total construction area of more than 9,000 square meters, the new Qingpu Museum, a two-story gable and hip roof ancient-style building, has quadruple the space of the original. Scheduled to open in October, the additional space will allow the new museum to better record the area as well as Shanghai's vivid history and cultural roots.

Xing Tonghe, one of Shanghai's most distinguished architects, is heading up the project. Xing's most famous building is probably the Shanghai Museum, which cleverly depicts an ancient Chinese belief that Earth is square and Heaven is round in a contemporary way.

Qingpu Museum curator Chen Juxing explains that the butterfly-shaped design was selected from five different designs drawn up by the architect. "We chose it because of the symbolism: the topography of Qingpu is similar to a butterfly. From another perspective, the petals symbolize the beauty of Qingpu District, a historic water town lush with blooming flowers."

The design also features several innovative elements, the highlight of which is the introduction of natural light. Compared with the Shanghai Museum, the Qingpu Museum's hall is more spacious and brighter, with a 21-meter-high transparent dome overhead. The perfect combination of natural light and a judicious use of electric light simulates a more natural appearance and also jettisons the traditional view that museums are usually dark and gloomy.

"The last thing I want to do is wandering around a dark hall, surrounded by age-old relics," says Huang Zhaoqi, a 18-year-old student. "I have visited so many museums where the exhibition halls seem isolated from the outside world, deserted in the darkness. They just don't feel good." The new Qingpu Museum, however, does. The role of natural light has been elevated, as if to meet her demands, and the environment is more human and thoughtful.

"Our new museum will have an advanced computer control center to monitor security, the indoor temperature, light and humidity," adds Chen. "In addition to the digital management, even a simultaneous interpretation device is installed in the lecture hall, which will better satisfy the rising demand for international cultural exchanges in the future." The construction of the new Qingpu Museum began in February 2002 with a total investment of 100 million yuan (US$12 million).

The museum will host a rich trove of collections, including 2,000-plus cultural articles. Exhibits include archeology, ancient cultures and the history of the suburban district. According to the curator, there are more than 250 cultural articles on exhibit from the early Neolithic Age (6000-2000 BC) to the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, including an elaborate three-person tomb, a husband-and-wife tomb, a T-shape big pottery "ding" (an ancient cooking vessel), ivory bracelets and a bird-shaped black pottery kettle. All these ancient exhibits are of great academic and historical values, showing the brilliance of the ancient culture from several thousand years ago.

The oldest site in the city is Fuquanshan in Qingpu, whose civilization dates back to the Majiabang (4000-2685 BC) and Songze (3900-3200 BC) periods. "Many new archeological evidence unearthed in Qingpu may debunk the long-accepted assertion that Shanghai started out as a humble fishing village during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)," explains Chen.

"The evidence suggests that the region could already have been a magnet for people from other parts of China thousands of years ago. With such a colorful history, Shanghai should no longer be considered a cultural desert with short history as has previously been the case." Tao Yindi, an 80-something woman who migrated from the neighboring regions to Shanghai several decades ago, attributes the initial prosperity of the city to foreign investment in the early 1900s. "In those days, particularly in the Bund area, there were shops scattered everywhere," Tao recalls, beaming. "There was hustle and bustle everywhere. It wasn't rare to hear several kinds of languages around you."

The cultural relics from Qingpu, however, show that the region was already a flourishing town as early as the Tang Dynasty. "The exhibits here, such as Tang picture ewer, celadon oven, jade sandalwood burner tops and inkstones, vividly depict the ups and downs of Qinglong Town -- the original name of Qingpu -- during the Tang Dynasty," Chen notes. "Currently, the first established Shanghai town is believed to be Huating Town in the city's northwest, which dates from the Tang Dynasty. But the findings from Qinglong Town may push that date back five years."

Blessed with its plain topography, sophisticated river network and abundant production, Qinglong Town stood out economically as a rich land in the southern part of the Yangtze River during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Its prosperity was even compared with Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and dubbed "little Hangzhou."

However, the vicissitudes of the riverway and a war during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) sent Qinglong into a gradual decline, but it still plays an important role in local culture. To recreate that ancient civilization, the new Qingpu Museum will make full use of multimedia equipment to cross time and space.

To highlight the historic "water town" character in Qingpu District, a special exhibition hall will be built. "We are trying to make the visitors feel as if they were there, on the scene," Chen smiles. "We can't do that with cold displays alone. Thanks to advanced hardware in the new museum, a larger number of articles can be displayed to the public and will mirror long-lasting local culture. In my opinion, the construction of the new museum on such an age-old site in Qingpu is also a harmonious mix of tradition and modernity."

Museums, says Chen, are a carrier of history and culture that are also an important reflection of regional civilization. It not only witnesses the city's developing routes, but also promotes people's respect for history and culture through meaningful exhibits. "In Shanghai, a dynamic metropolis in China, the role of museum can't be neglected," Chen adds. "We have received strong support from both the government and society during the construction. Everything we do is to provide local people a clearer picture of their hometown and their cultural roots. Thus, the historical value of cultural relics can be maximized."

(eastday.com April 26, 2004)

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