The City of Kunming has encouraged the development of museums to make history and culture more accessible to the public. Among them are the Yunnan Museum focusing on the entire province, the Ethnic Minorities Museum celebrating various people groups, and the Railway Museum. Another is the Kunming Municipal Museum, which reopened in 2014 after three years of reconstruction. A recent exhibit there presented 20th century art, said to be the first showing of its kind in the city for several decades. That was the impetus for me to make a visit. I was joined by my teacher, Jennifer. Located on Tuodong Road, Kunming Municipal Museum is close to my School. We saw several dozen abstract and impressionist works by French, German and other painters. There was even a Picasso. We each had our favorites and explained what we liked about them.
Another exhibit displayed ancient artifacts recovered from around the region. There were quite a number of swords and knives, farming implements, figurines and religious statues. I was intrigued by their age, many identified as hundreds, even thousands of years old. What a difference from my own background. I grew up in the USA in a house built in 1825 and trace my ancestry back to Europe several hundred years ago. Ah, such a brief heritage compared with the magnificent depth of Chinese history. One of the reasons I came to China was to learn more about this ancient land and its five-thousand year old language. The exhibit gave me insights into the country’s past, which in some respects seemed rather violent. I admit to being grateful I do not live as a subject in one of the ancient dynasties, with their many wars and apparently grim life for so many people. In present day Kunming I find life rather nice, thank you.
The lobby of the museum had what looked like an obelisk several times human height. On closer inspection we found it was called The Sutra Stone Pillar of the Kingdom of Dali. It was around a thousand years old, about seven meters tall, and contained 300 sculpted images of human figures and Buddhist deities. A nearby plaque explained its purpose: “To release the soul from the land of suffering for Gao Ming Sheng, the supreme head of military and administration of ancient Kunming city.” A legend is told of a dragon that bedeviled the rivers in the region, sending floods to destroy crops and homes. The power of the pillar was such that the evil dragon was imprisoned underneath it and the floods came to an end. Some say when they approach the stone pillar and listen patiently, the dragon’s breath can still be heard making sounds like running water.
From the lobby we headed upstairs to an exhibit dating back “only” eighty years. This exhibit recalled the exploits of the Flying Tigers during World War II. If you don’t know their story, here it is in brief. They were a squadron of airplanes and pilots, mostly American, based in Kunming. Their task: to give air support to China in its war against Japan. At the time, the Chinese government had retreated away from the Pacific coast to move beyond the range of the Japanese air force. Kunming was also the endpoint of the “Burma Road”, a major supply line that allowed China to receive essential war supplies. The exhibit displayed an extensive collection of Flying Tigers memorabilia, historical photographs of the pilots and their aircraft, and voluminous information on their famous commander, Claire Lee Chennault. While the treatment of Chennault sometimes approached hagiography, I found the story of the Flying Tigers fascinating and the exhibit well worth a visit. I have to wonder if one reason Chennault received such attention is because he married a beautiful, well-educated Chinese woman named Chen Xiangmei. After World War II ended, Chennault favored the Kuomintang, which means he opposed the Communist forces that would go on to help found the Peoples Republic of China. But I didn’t learn this until after visiting the museum, and I was astounded by the revelation. I grant the Kunming Museum credit for illuminating a part of China’s past in a way I would not have expected.
In my class at Keats I learned the Chinese word for museum: 博物馆. Using Pinyin (the alphabetic rendering of Chinese characters) it sounds like this: “bó wù guǎn”. The basic meaning is “natural history pavilion”. The stone pillar, the artifacts, and the Flying Tigers helped connect me with the past. Yet there is more to see in the city; other museums await discovery in Kunming.