“The museum is under construction, so there are only two rooms open,” the woman behind the information desk told us in a droll voice in Mandarin. She probably had to say this same thing hundreds of times a day, every day.
But while this was just another day for her, this was the only day for John, my Chinese husband, and I to visit the the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou, Henan Province.
We just shrugged our shoulders in disappointment, and walked to the room to our right. It was painted in a forgettable beige — nearly the same color as the loess of the loess plains, where Zhengzhou is located — and seemed to hold, on first glance, an equally forgettable collection of artifacts that couldn’t match what we’d seen in Beijing, Shanghai and Changsha.
Yet, forgettable is hardly how we would describe our visit. That’s because the Henan Museum, opened to the public in 1998, is one of the few museums in China where you don’t feel as if you’ve seen this bronze or that porcelain 100 times before. Invest a little time, be curious, and you will be rewarded with extraordinary stories and unusual relics.
It’s easy to overlook the Henan Museum, located in downtown Zhengzhou, China. In the Lonely Planet guide, Zhengzhou is described as “at best an overnight stop en route to more worthwhile destinations,” discouraging would-be travelers from exploring the city’s highlights (even though, later in the text, the guide does call the Henan Museum “fantastic” and reference its “impressive collection”). I suspect the architects of the current museum wanted to overcome this deficit through the current building design. The outlandish studded pyramid really tries too hard, and has none of the elegant simplicity of I.M. Pei’s pyramidal designs.
The thing is, the Henan Museum doesn’t need to try hard. The stories and relics it has to share are so remarkable, they could shine anywhere, even in a nondescript temporary trailer.
Some of the most amazing finds in the museum are prehistorical pieces that explain Chinese origins, pose provocative questions, or simply highlight ancient Chinese ingenuity.
For example, did you know that the Chinese were the original “flower people?” This 5,000-7,000 year-old flower-decorated bowl is representative of many pottery pieces with a flower design, suggesting that the people of this time worshipped flowers. In ancient Chinese, the word hua (花) also meant flower — so this could be the origin of the terms huaren (华人) or huaxiaminzu (华夏民族), which are both used to refer to “Chinese people.”
Is it a coffin for babies, or a drum made of clay? Some scholars say this bizarre piece, also 5,000-7,000 years old, had a hole in it to let the deceased infant’s soul freely enter or leave. Others say it was used as a drum, with a leather skin attached to the stud-like protrusions on the bottom, with the hole there to amplify the sound. It’s still a mystery, and a mysterious piece to observe from prehistorical China.
You’ll also find one of the earliest examples of city wastewater construction. A 4,000 to 5,000 year old piece is actual clay piping used to route wastewater in the city. Not only were the prehistoric Chinese ancestors artistic — they cared about municipal hygiene.
Some of the museum’s pieces look so ordinary, yet they might just be a missing link, or even tell a fascinating story about China.
One nondescript bronze vessel, approximately 3,000 years old, actually helped scholars learn the true location of the the state of Shen in ancient China.
A scene carved into a gray stone slate describes how China’s unity was traditionally linked to the possession of nine ding (鼎, an ancient cooking vessel) — which is also why China is often referred to as jiuzhou (or the nine divisions). In this story, Qin Zhaoyang — the father of Qin Shihuang, the emperor who would eventually unite China — captured the nine ding, but then lost one of them in a river and could not retrieve it from the water. Qin Shihuang, his son, couldn’t recover the missing ding in the river, even after sending more than a thousand men to search for it in 219 B.C.. Ultimately, the river dragon breaks the ding apart in its jaws.
But don’t worry if you’re more visual than cerebral — the Henan Museum has plenty there to delight the eye, too. There’s a full jade funerary suit, a hideous Tang tricolor guard of the underworld, a delicate porcelain head of napa cabbage, and some of the most elaborate ancient clay building replicas on display in China.
Once you’ve finished your morning or afternoon visit, don’t just take a taxi back to your hotel. The Henan Museum is located next to some of the oldest streets in Zhengzhou, perfect for experiencing lively Chinese street life during the Spring, Summer and Fall. Walk south on Jingqi Lu or Jingwu Lu — no farther than Jinshui Lu — under the endless emerald arch of the oriental plane trees. You may come upon sprawling tables of seniors engrossed in mahjong, or a tractor parked on the corner piled high with peaches or watermelons from the countryside, or a boisterous vegetable market, or even someone stealing a quick nap on a reclining chair.
These streets are also lined with endless options for restaurants, or street eats, from shaguo, a type of stew filled with noodles, vegetables and meats) and mala tang, an ultra-spicy stew of glass noodles, vegetables and meat) to the delectable baijimo, kiln-baked flatbread) stuffed with your choice of simmering meats or seaweed/tofu. Use your eyes — and nose — as a guide, preferring those places where the people are (a sign of good food and good enough hygiene).
From the galleries to the great streets surrounding it, the experience of visiting the Henan Museum has stayed with us as a highlight of our trip. When we speak of our favorite places in China, we invariably imagine the museum’s prehistorical flower bowl, or the gray stone slate with the story of the nine ding, or even the intricate clay building replicas.
Still, we had it easy. Those two galleries were packed with the museum’s jingpin — the most outstanding pieces. Once the construction is done, those pieces will be dispersed throughout the galleries. That means you’ll have to look for them, and you’ll only get an occasional thrill. But it’s a thrill worth looking for, and a thrill that just might resonate with you long after your visit.
When to visit
The Henan Museum (0371-6351-1237) is located on Nongye Road, in between Huayuan Road and Wenhua Road. It is open Tuesday through Friday from 9a.m. to 5p.m., with no admittance after 3:30p.m. Admission is free with a valid photo ID (such as a passport or Chinese ID card), but the museum does cap the amount of visitors per day to 5,000 (3,000 in the morning, 2,000 in the afternoon).
You can visit any time of the year — but if you’d like to wander the surrounding streets, come in Spring, Summer or Fall.
By Plane: Your best bet is Xinzheng Airport in Zhengzhou. You can either take a taxi ( ~100 RMB) directly to the museum, or take the airport bus (every hour, on the hour, 15 RMB) to Jinshui Road (also the first stop for the bus), and then take a taxi to the museum.
By Train: Since Zhengzhou is a major railway hub (linking East-West and North-South lines) it’s easy to get here by train from most major cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Wuhan, Changsha and Guangzhou.
Where to stay
Zhengzhou has accommodations for every budget. But if you’re on a budget, consider the dated, but enormously hospitable and helpful Wuhua Hotel on Weiwu Road (rooms ~ 172 RMB, more or less). It is within walking distance of the Henan Museum, as well as the charming streets surrounding it, and their sumptuous breakfast buffet alone is worth it.
Find this and more by booking — online, as I did — at Ctrip.com (no deposit needed, and you can cancel easily, if necessary).
This is the Travel China with the Yangxifu series, which appears every 2nd Wednesday of the month. Thanks to Rich for inspiring me to launch this series.
To read more, visit the Travel China with the Yangxifu archives.