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Businessmen star in new Chinese museum

Can a country once devoid of great museums successfully develop a museum culture?

BEIJING — A museum devoted to Chinese businessmen evokes images of drab exhibition halls filled with scale models of earnest middle managers and blueprints of factory expansions.

Yet the Chinese Businessman Museum tells the fascinating tale of an ancient tribe of merchants who revolutionized the way business is done in China. They are credited with inventing the country’s first banking system, establishing a nationwide business alliance that would put modern networking to shame and, oddly enough, turning Maotai into the country’s most famous liquor.

They are the Jinshang merchants of Shanxi province, who for 500 years were China’s business elite — a reign that collapsed with the monarchy and stayed buried through the decades of chaos that ruled China through the 20th century. With China’s economic rise there is renewed interest in its ancient business luminaries.

The businessman museum, a gorgeous and sprawling complex of gray brick on the southeast edge of Beijing, uses only a portion of its grounds to show off its collection. Inside are 200-year-old contracts and passports, stamps and signboards of merchants and interactive photo and map exhibits. It is, quite simply, an elegant and well-planned museum with an interesting tale.

It is also dead empty. When it opened (“informally,” the director tells me) last August, the summer Olympics did bring visitors. The private, profit-making endeavor was listed in a guidebook for Olympic athletes and since then it has drawn top business leaders attending
conferences in Beijing. Its message and contents are compelling — teaching moral principles for doing business in a society riddled with corruption. It holds high the standards of Jinshang, who let Confucianism rather than profits guide them. It also costs 50 yuan ($7.30) per person, a hefty amount for the average Chinese tourist.

Xue Yan, director of the museum, said the artifacts display is only one piece of the puzzle. Unfinished parts of the complex include entertainment, dining and shopping venues. Eventually this will function as a conference center, where modern businessmen can meet, eat, be entertained and gaze sentimentally at their highly moral predecessors.

“We’re not like a traditional history or art museum,” Xue said, speaking over the low hum of Buddhist chanting coming from a CD player behind his desk, an altar set in the wall over his shoulder. “This is the first museum in China about business; it’s quite different.”

It is a surprisingly interesting find amid the new crop of museums across China. Once conspicuously devoid of great museums, China is making up for lost time. In the past decade, dozens upon dozens of new  museums have opened across the country, both public and private.

Beijing has opened an average of half a dozen museums each year since 1997. The new offerings range from the airy and underwhelming Capital Museum to the downright peculiar — a museum about tap water, dedicated to the city’s irrigation system.