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A rare chance to come face to face with China's past
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A rare gathering of some of the most splendid treasures illustrating China's long history promises to delight visitors to the Olympic city at the Capital Museum.

Out of several exhibitions, the most popular is "Chinese Memory-treasures of a 5000-year Civilization", which has gathered 169 of the best pieces from 55 museums across the country. The exhibits are the pick of the crop, and rarely if ever leave their home museums. Only the Olympics has the power to bring together such a collection of treasures.

As a result the Capital Museum witnessed has been busy in the last few days, and there have been more Chinese than foreign visitors, with queues snaking outside for a length of up to 200 meters.

Some relics are up to 8000 years old. A bone flute, unearthed at the site of Peiligang Culture, Hunan province in 1987, is believed to be from 6000 BC. It was the earliest musical organ found in China and, experts said, the oldest flute on earth that can still be played. Two similar flutes had been dug out of the same tomb. They formed a pair of male and female organs, an arrangement popular among Ancient Chinese.

Many exhibits were familiar to Chinese visitors from schoolbooks or from frequent appearances in the media. But for many this was there first time face to face with these relics. It was a thrilling experience and, to many people of all ages, a dream come true.

For anyone with an interest in China, and even for those with no knowledge whatsoever, the exhibition will be enlightening. The show was well organized, breaking into four parts and ten chapters: from "The Dawn--prehistoric times before 21st century BC--the times of ritual and music" to "The End of Classics--10th to 19th century AD".

A jade burial suit, from Xuzhou Museum in East China's Jiangsu Province, testified to ancient Chinese people's love of the material. It boasts the finest jade, the best craftsmanship and the largest number of small rectangular jade tablets, compared to other similar works found in the country.

Miniatures of terra cotta warriors are now available at tourist shops everywhere. But here, visitors come face to face with the real thing: a team of four terra cotta warriors and a horse. The Olympic opening ceremony will use as part of its inspiration these ancient warriors of the Qin Dynasty. The performers are set to try to capture the awesome spirit of these formidable warriors of more than 2000 years ago. Could they do better than the earthen models? At this exhibition, the visitor can judge for himself.

A ceramic figurine depicting a storyteller carrying a drum at his waist is another showstopper. The figure had a lively body form as well as a vivid, exaggerated facial expression. A visitor commented that the ancient performer might make a talented cheerleader at the Olympics.

"Chinese Memory" was undoubtedly the biggest attraction among the five temporary shows specially prepared for the Olympics. It was the only show that charged a fee of 30 yuan (a little less than US$5) for admission. This had not deterred the visitors, though.

The other four shows, all free, had drawn far fewer visitors and there were no long queues in front of the entrances.

But a museum sources said the Beijing Superb Cultural Relics Exhibition, pooling 285 pieces of the best collections of museums in Beijing, was also a rare opportunity to learn about traditional Chinese culture.

And the Yangtze River Civilization Exhibition, supported by 15 museums, was the first exhibition in the country dedicated to the Yangtze River civilization, which in antiquity was one of the two major foundations of Chinese civilization.

The remaining two exhibitions, comparatively minor in scale, were related to sports games in China and Ancient Greece. Visitors who had time and energy left or had special interests could go to the upper floors to view the 11 permanent exhibitions, which covered such themes as Beijing's urban construction, opera and folklores, ancient paintings, chinaware, jadeware, and fine gadgets.

The capital Museum is on the same avenue, Chang'an Jie, as Tian'anmen Square. Visitors can take metro Line 1 to Muxidi station, or choose one of a dozen bus routes to get there.

Security is strict at the moment and liquids are not allowed inside. There is a free cloakroom at reception. Free guides in 11 languages are available, and every staffer has been trained to communicate in a basic way in eight foreign languages.

The museum runs a free oral narration service for major exhibitions. In addition, there are 1000 electronic audio guides in both Chinese and English are available to rent.

Visitors with families can use the three children's centers, and other facilities include a bookshop, an Olympic Souvenir shop, a business center, a cafe and a buffet restaurant. If you want to eat outside the museum and return later, staff will stamp your arm before exiting. The stamp will ensure your readmission on the same day.

The dark-colored Capital Museum features a green-plant-coated sculpture in the shape of an ancient wine cup in front of the terraced North Gate. The mansion has six stories and was designed to receive one million visitors a year. Starting in March this year, admission is free except for some special exhibitions. Reservation via phone or the Internet three days ahead of a visit are required by the museum in order to control numbers. Visitors to charged special shows like "Chinese Memory" do not need to make reservations and can enjoy the other shows for free.

The number of visitors to "Chinese Memory" averaged over 6000 a day in the initial week. A visitor might wait one or two hours before being admitted into the exhibition hall.

In an interview with Xinhua, the museum's planning department director Sun Wuyi said "We must ensure the quality of viewing," he added, "The rarity of the exhibits may prolong the time of viewing."

A solution was to view other shows first, Sun said, the crowded situation might ease in the afternoon. He called on local residents to delay their visits to make room for guests from the outside, because the exhibition would continue until October 7.

The museum might consider calls for extending exhibition hours per day or quickening the flow of viewers, Sun said, "But there's a limit on that, because the daily hours and density of viewers must be controlled for safety of exhibits and viewers, as well as for comfortable viewing."

The Capital Museum is normally in service 9:00-17:00 everyday except Monday. Ticket sales stop at 16:00. It is closed from August 8-10 for a special event. As August 11 is a Monday, the museum will resume normal operation on August 12.

(Xinhua News Agency August 6, 2008)

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