The National Museum of China

Somehow, my mom started telling folks in China that I came to Beijing wanting to just seem the museums!!! Even though I didn’t know about any museums that weren’t the Forbidden City, really. However, as a person who reads every word on every placard in any museum, gallery, aquarium, zoo, what have you, I did really enjoy visiting 2 amazing and free (!!!) museums in Beijing with my aunts. Because I was maybe the only person interested in the exhibits, we didn’t spend an awful lot of time in either museum, so I’ll have to go back someday soon and see the rest! The first one I want to talk about is:

National Museum of China (中国国家博物馆)

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The National Museum (国家博物馆) is an easy stop if you will be visiting Tiananmen Square, as it’s directly across the street, and is a great stop to get an expansive look at China’s history.

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View of Tiananmen from the museum
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View of Mao Zedong’s mausoleum and other landmarks through the haze

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You can start with prehistoric times by looking at the oldest human fossils found in China and go all the way through to the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty before the Communist Revolution.

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Statues of prominent members of the founding class of the Communist Party of China

While I was able to visit the Forbidden City and its accompanying museum, many imperial artifacts are actually kept here in the National Museum, such as the furniture and accoutrements of the various rooms that would otherwise be left exposed to tourists and the elements.

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This is one of the most famous pieces in the entire museum is this Shang dynasty bronze zun with 4 sheep heads

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I loved this piece depicting a fierce battle between 2 armies
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It was so raw and didn’t hold back with how epic and violent war can be
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Another favorite was this depiction of the different tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture and weighing out herbal medicine ingredients the old way

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I’ve never seen the Terracotta Army but now I’ve seen 3 members of it

The museum is huge. We only had a few hours and did not get to see all the exhibits, including a waxwork exhibit of key figures in Chinese history. I’m glad we were able to stop by a section that was devoted to statues of important historical people. If you don’t know any important people from China’s history, go up to the top floor of the National Museum and learn about the people who are depicted in statue up there.

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Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk whose pursuit of Sanskrit scriptures inspired the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West

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Qinshihuang, the first Emperor of China, known for achievements like unifying China and commissioning the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army

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During my visit, there was a collaboration exhibit with the museum and Qatar museums on pearls. They had a lot of stunning pearl work, from intricate pearl beading found in imperial costumes to items from Elizabeth Taylor’s personal collection. They also had really cool items like an oyster shell that trapped a fish beneath layers of mother-of-pearl.

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Little fish trapped in mother-of-pearl. Beside this was an X-ray showing its bones
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Other creatures have also been unfortunate enough to be trapped beneath an iridescent layer in a mollusk, like these worms
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Salvador Dali’s Ruby Lips and Elizabeth Taylor’s pearl ring

I didn’t take many photos, contrary to how many you see here, because I was furiously reading signs and trying to take in as much information as I could. To think that there were entire wings of the museum that I didn’t get to see, while I was speedwalking through the ones I did get to browse, blows my mind.

I can’t wait to come back and explore the rest of the museum and their new exhibits!

National Museum of China

Admission: FREE – citizens need their ID and non-nationals need to bring a passport
Security: Do not bring large bags, as they will not be permitted. A thorough security check is required before entering the museum, so be prepared to have your bag scanned and to be patted down. Lighters are prohibited, as evidenced by the giant basket of ’em at the security checkpoint. Photos are permitted, as you can see, but not in all exhibits.


What is your favorite history museum? I don’t think I can choose a favorite history museum, since those are my favorites. And really, aren’t all museums history museums? I definitely love when they are free, though! Free access to history is something I really take for granted, as someone who is a hop, skip, and jump away from so many Smithsonian institutions.

How much would you say you know about Chinese history? I know… some. My dad bought me a documentary set that covered literally every era of Chinese history, from prehistoric times through all the dynasties and wars through to the Communist Revolution. A lot of information has since leaked out of my brain, but I try to refresh bits and pieces of it every now and then and this museum visit helped a lot!

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