Dashilan[r] (大栅栏)

It seems a lot of my favorite sights in Beijing were seen in a jiffy and one of those was Dashilanr. (The local Beijing accent puts an “r” sound at the end of a lot of words, so thats’ where this strange Romanization comes from!) Named for the “big fence” aka 大栅栏 that was erected around it by merchants to protect the Ming dynasty capital, the only evidence left of this big fence is actually an iron gate that was put up in the year 2000.

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Dashilanr is best known as a historical street whose merchants clothed the imperial family and, later, the founding members of the Communist Party. A few of these businesses are still there today, selling their wares that have long been associated with status and wealth because they were literally the products that the emperor would wear. Some that my aunt pointed out to me while we were walking (full of KFC):

  • 马聚元 Majuyuan – cover your head like a king, hats on hats on hats
  • 内联升 Neiliansheng – traditional-style Chinese shoes in traditional and modern styles, Chairman Mao and the emperors had their shoes made here
  • 瑞蚨祥 Ruifuxiang – silk shop for when you want to get custom pieces and qipaos made

These are known as laozihao 老字號, which are ooooold, well-established Chinese businesses that came about when China moved the capital to Beijing during the Ming dynasty. These are household names that have been serving food and wares to China since way before the birth of America, constantly reminding me that the United States is very young compared to the over 400-year-old Peking duck shop and pickle shop. (Seriously! Look up 六必居.)

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Candied skewered haw (tanghulu  糖葫芦) is a popular and iconic snack in Beijing, as seen by this statue of a vendor and a child (I’m not the biggest fan, though, as I find the sugar brings out how tart the haw fruit is! It’s also not a great winter snack, but it is very iconic and is sold year-round.)

The thing about China is that it is one of the 4 ancient civilizations but also one of the largest powers in the modern world. So after you walk past Neiliansheng and get yourself fitted for a traditional pair of shoes not unlike those worn a hundred years ago (maybe customized with some Mickey Mouse designs), you can walk across the way to Madame Tussaud’s to say hi to Jackie Chan. I’ve never been particularly interested in wax museums, but I do think it’d be interesting to see what public figures are immortalized in wax at this location!

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Some shoes at Neiliansheng
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Hi Jackie! (Did you guys watch and cry at the video of him being reunited with his original stunt crew, by the way? I was a blubbering mess.)

If you walk a little further down, you can also shop at H&M and Zara. (I learned via Beijing prices that Zara actually is fast fashion, it’s just sold at a markup in the United States? I never quite understood why people compared it to H&M all the time… So basically, you can stock up here.)  There’s also side alleys that focus on traditional Beijing foods, and folks in costume will beckon to you with flags and giant fans to entice you to taste their food.

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My aunts were big on me trying Beijing specialties, like these special potstickers that are unique to the area

This is definitely a must-visit if you’re interested in seeing the juxtaposition of Beijing’s culture and historical brands with the ones introduced by globalization. I’d love to come back when it’s warmer and during the day.

Fun fact: A little train can transport you from the entrance to the back of the district, as it can be a very long walk, especially if you are traveling with elders or small children. I’m not 100% clear on the schedule, we only saw it go past once during the whole time we were there.


There are a lot of pedestrian-only shopping streets in China, and I love that this one is so rich with Beijing’s history. You can learn a lot about what the upper class has looked like over the past 600 years walking down this street, as you shop where the emperor did and then pop into a Zara and get Coco bubble tea.

What are your favorite places where old intersects with new? I love seeing this in China, although sometimes it happens at such a rapid pace that I get very concerned because this modernization does leave a lot of people behind. I remember my Europe trip had a lot of these visual intersections, with all-glass building fronts besides medieval stone structures, like in Tallinn and in London.

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The Capital Museum

Part of the reason that my mom is now telling everyone how much I love museums is that I did get to visit 2 great museums while I was in Beijing: The National Museum of China and the Capital Museum. While the National Museum is dedicated to the entire history of China and its people, the Capital Museum focuses on Beijing, the capital city, and art.

And as I mentioned before, this is another free museum, so bring your passport and take advantage of the immense amount of art and culture that is available if you have a few hours.

Capital Museum (首都博物馆)

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Again, I didn’t take many photos and had a limited amount of time in this museum, but I really enjoyed learning about specific cultural aspects of Beijing and, in turn, China while exploring the Capital Museum.

There was an exhibit on Peking opera that I found really fascinating, a super cool exhibit about Old Beijing and the hutong life that used to thrive in the capital, an exhibit on imperial culture from China’s seat of power, and so many galleries of sculpture, calligraphy, painting, jade, porcelain. Did you know that the Chinese had a system of producing furniture so as to not use a single nail to keep the pieces together?

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I loved the snapshot in time here with the double happiness candles and this antique camera
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A marriage sedan that I photographed because I was unsure of how long I needed to spend in the “Beijing wedding customs” section of the museum while friends back home kept getting engaged

There was also a temporary exhibit I saw about Tibetan yaks and how important they were to the people of Tibet. My aunts were really excited to see this, as I think the exhibit left shortly after I did, and it’s not something that many people are able to see up close but folks know a bit about it. The size of the skulls and horns that were on display were unreal when you thought about just the sheer size of these beasts and how much a people’s livelihood depended on them.

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An example of a yurt
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Piles of (fake) yak dung patties that act as fuel

This museum had fewer English placards than the other one, and fewer Chinese ones than I would have expected, but there was a lot of history and art and culture jam-packed into the Capital Museum, and I do recommend a visit if you’d like to learn a bit more about the history and culture and art of Beijing when you visit!

Admission: FREE – citizens need their ID and non-nationals need to bring a passport

Capital Museum


http://en.capitalmuseum.org.cn


What are some aspects of Beijing-specific culture that you’re familiar with? I know a little bit about Peking opera and visited a hutong the last time I was in Beijing but it was cool to learn just a little bit more! I was on the lookout for a big food exhibit but alas, no such luck during my visit!

What other museums in Beijing do you think are worth visiting?

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!