Yesterday we went to the spectacularly named Tianjin Museum (天津博物馆). It was built in 2004 to commemorate Tianjin’s 600th birthday, and focuses on Tianjin’s role in China’s modern history (from the first Opium War against the foreign imperialist aggressors in 1840 to Liberation in 1949).
The museum is well done, all bilingual and with the best (though not perfect) English I’ve seen so far in China. Two especially eye-catching displays are worth mentioning, because they give us a glimpse of the roles foreigners play in China’s historical narrative, and the prescribed view of the current general situation.
You may be wondering about the burning cross pictured above. The museum has a huge mural portraying Tianjin from 1840-1949, and this is a detail depicting the “Tianjin Incident,” which is called the “Tianjin Massacre” in the West. Rumours had apparently spread that the nuns, running an orphanage for sick and abandoned children, were actually eating the children. I suppose it’s not so crazy: strange people in strange clothes take great interest in children no one cares about, the children occasionally die in their care, lose the Eucharist somewhere in translation, and plop the whole situation in the middle of an intense historical context where anti-foreign sentiment is already running high. The situation was just waiting for a spark. Anyway, one thing led to another and the cathedral (pictured top centre), which we’ve seen in real life, was burned in 1870 by rioting locals. Over 20 nuns and priests, and almost double the number of local converts, were murdered. But the price of Western blood was high and France extracted heavy reparations, which, as you can see, China has not forgotten.
Western powers instigated the First Opium War (1839-42), which consequently forced southern China wide open to the mercy of Western economic interests (that’s how the British got Hong Kong). The Second Opium War (1856-60) was the same story in the north, and was fought on Tianjin’s doorstep.
The people of every nation spin their history, and China is no different, though they seem to spin their’s with a certain unapologetic flair we don’t often get in the West.
Here’s the Preface, verbatim, posted at the entrance to the exhibit:
The past hundred years after the Opium War, the Chinese nation had undergone the semi-feudal and semi-colonial miserable experience. During this period, Tianjin historically became the forefront where Chinese and Western civilizations collided with each other. In the life-and-death struggle for the defense of the Chinese nation, Tianjin more than once became the main battlefield in the resistance against foreign invasion. Faced with the challenges of “free trade,” Tianjin blazed a trail to Chinese modernization the hard way, became the center of disseminating industrial civilization in North China, and began the historical journey proceeding from inland rivers to seas and oceans, and from the domestic ferry terminals to the integration with the world system.
The struggle and rise of Tianjin in modern times constituted the theme of the recent development and vicissitudes in China mirrored the two big problems China ran up against in modern times: national contradictions between China and foreign countries and the crisis arising from development at home, and epitomized the brilliant road the Chinese people took in modern times in safeguarding independence, pursuing freedom and greeting liberation.
Tianjin was founded 600 years ago, serving as the customs and trade port for Beijing. The Dagu forts, pictured immediately above, below, and right, were where foreign armies crushed the Chinese defenses and worked their way upriver to Tianjin, and eventually Beijing. The photo on the right shows the what was left of one of the Dagu forts after Allied Forces overran it during the Second Opium War. All the material I’ve seen so far on the Opium Wars includes this photo.
From a display panel:
In June 1840, in the flames and smoke of gunpowder of the Opium War, China was plunged into the abyss of semi-feudal and semi-colonial disasters in history. As a sea gateway to the capital, Tianjin became the first choice of Western powers for political blackmail and military attack against China, and therefore inevitably became the more forefront of resistance of the Chinese people against foreign invaders in modern history. The three heroic and stirring battles at Dagukou, the world-shocking Tianjin Incident, and the Boxer Uprising in 1900 which inflicted heavy blows on the Allied Forces of the Eight Powers, the battle for the defense of Laoxikai — all these showed to the world the spirit of the people of Tianjin to fight the aggressors to the last drop of thir blood.
As you step out of a darker, grey, drab room of foreign occupation into a brighter, red room of military victory and patriotism, you approach the museum’s final display. You find yourself standing before a huge open doorway. On the other side you can look out over railing, before which stands a microphone just like the one Mao used to declare the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 from atop the Gate of Heavenly peace (one local with us knew all the words by heart). But instead of seeing Tiananmen Square like you would expect, a red-toned Chinese landscape reaches into the distance over Great Wall-capped mountain ridges. I think they’re trying to make a point.