Beijing's top museums

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Chinese frequently brag about their 5,000 year-old culture. But a tourist visiting Beijing's most popular tourist sites could be forgiven for thinking the country has little to show for it.

Canals have been filled in and city walls replaced with ring roads. The Forbidden City is of course impressive, but much of it was reconstructed over the last two hundred years, and the best artifacts are in Taipei.

So if a casual stroll or a visit to the main tourist sites dotted throughout the concrete, glass and steel that is modern Beijing cannot give a sense of China's long history, what will?

The authors of the fascinating new book China: Museums spent years exploring the country to find out.

Authors Mirium Clifford, Cathy Giangrande and Antony White have compiled a guide to the best, quirkiest and in a few cases worst museums throughout China.

The Beijing section of the book, published by Scala, is easily worth the hefty 220 yuan price tag, listing over 100 museums in the Beijing and Tianjin region.

The small Poly Museum, kitty corner from the Poly Theater, for example, has a Shang Dynasty-era helmet decorated with animal faces, dating back three millennia. The Beijing Eunuch Culture Exhibition Hall features a ceremonial tomb with statues and carvings dating back almost 400 years, and unspoiled by clumsy restoration attempts. The almost entirely rebuilt Fahai Temple features original, astonishingly beautiful unrestored wall paintings that predate the great frescos of St. Peter's Basilica.

The entries for each museum supply in-depth, succinct guides to the sites, which often have limited or no English signs. They also add some historical insights that the museums may neglect for political reasons. Sidebars cover topics such as the lives of eunuchs, the history of Beijing's concession district, and the role of silver jewelry in ethnic minorities' courtship rituals.

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