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October 12, 2005

New Museum in Nantong

The weekend of October 1-2, the city of Nantong put on a series of events to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of China’s first homegrown museum and to celebrate the opening of a bigger and better museum next to the still-functioning original.

The events coincided with an international museum management conference and overlapped at some points (e.g., banquets) with a conference on foreign investment. I got an invitation to the latter (in which I wasn’t particularly interested) but had to solicit one – which the organizing committee gladly issued – to the museum celebration. In the morning, Terry and I attended the grand opening of the new museum and took the opening-day tour. They do these things with lots of fanfare in China – marching bands, fireworks, etc. The new museum is on a par qualitatively with the Shanghai City Museum, though considerably smaller. Our tour guide moved pretty fast, and we plan to return to savor the exhibits.

In the afternoon, there was a pretty boring panel discussion, in which a dozen speakers gave mostly the same speech about the biography of Zhang, the history of the museum, and the history of modern Nantong. Most of them also got in a few remarks about the “san ge dai biao” (usually translated as “the Three Represents”), former President Jiang Zemin’s nearly-inscrutable contribution to socialist theory. In the evening, there was a pleasant banquet.

We skipped the Friday evening tour boat ride on the Hao River, because we were tired, and the Sunday tour of other local museums, because I had to go to Nanjing for work and research. But we made several interesting new acquaintances on Saturday. During the museum tour, we met a young woman from Nantong who has worked in advertising in New York for the past six years. She happened to be back for a visit. We also met people in museum management from Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore. The man from Taipei went into museum work after retiring from a career in engineering. His specialty is museums of “miniatures.” Most interesting was a Dutch couple we met in the morning and saw periodically during the day. The guy’s great-great uncle worked for Zhang Jian, taking responsibility for improving the navigability of the Yangzi River near Nantong. There is a statue of the great-great uncle on the bank of the Hao River, just across form the Youfei Hotel, where many out-of-towners stayed. Someone from the city government found the great-great nephew through an internet search, because he has the same name as his ancestor, and sent him an invitation to come for the celebration. They arraigned a special lunch where the Dutch couple could meet several of Zhang’s descendents.

Nantong is rightfully proud of its museum tradition and the museum’s founder, early-20th-century industrialist and civic booster Zhang Jiang. Zhang also founded China’s first technical college, its first woman’s college, and its first public library. He was vilified during the Cultural Revolution, but is treated as a model modernizer during the contemporary period of opening up and reform. In addition to a substantial scholarship in Chinese, several English-language books and articles have been published in recent years about various aspects of Zhang’s civic work. (I was able to add a local touch to my most recent journal article – on Chinese modernization – by referring to Zhang Jian and the growing scholarship about him.)

-- Norty

Posted by now at October 12, 2005 01:26 PM