One man and his museum in China

October 16th, 2008 - 9:47 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Oct 16 (Xinhua) Ma Weidu knew little about antiques when he was a child in the chaotic China of the 1960s. But he used to wonder why people hated beautiful old things so much, watching them tearing paintings and dismantling old constructions.Now the 53-year-old has his own museum filled with antiques. He has been in the profession for almost three decades. Ma recently became a household name after he started delivering lectures on antiques and traditional culture on national broadcaster CCTV.

“I watched how China’s antique collection boomed. Now two places are most crowded in Beijing before sunrise everyday: Tiananmen Square where tourists crane their neck to watch national-flag raising and Panjiayuan (a curio fair) where people bend their head down to hunt for treasures.”

Ma believes three indices attest to antique collection prosperity: extra money in pockets, government permission and increasing interest in, and knowledge of, antiques.

When Ma began collecting antiques, they were cheap. “It was like picking up treasures littered on the ground.”

Most people were throwing out old things to equip themselves with modern products such as “a collapsible chair, a TV set, sofa or a bike” in the late 1970s and early 1980s when China just opened its door to the outside world and launched economic reforms.

Ma dropped out from school at 11 when the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) began. He became an editor of a literature magazine after publishing a novel. He once joined writers such as Wang Shuo and Liu Zhenyun in producing China’s early TV comedies in the 1990s.

“When I was young, literature was my ultimate dream. But I left it when I found the circle corrupt - some writers could bribe judges for a prize.”

He turned to antique collection. “It’s like when you drank quality wine, you can’t go back to common wine or when you smoked a quality cigar, you can’t go back to common cigarettes.”

“In antique collection, there is a definite answer on whether an object is genuine or not.”

When Ma got a treasure, he enjoyed showing it to his friends. “Once, when I rushed into a friend’s home, people inside were embarrassed and quickly turned off the TV. When I found they were watching porn, I said nothing exciting to watch porn, let’s look at the bowl I just collected.”

Ma named his museum after a word from the Taoist classic “Tao Te Ching, Guanfu”, which literally means “watch it again and again”. “If you watch an object again and again, you are either in love with it or studying it.” His 3,500-square-metre museum mainly displays furniture and china, Ma’s two favourites.

“A museum is a place for you to enjoy culture. China’s museums have improved a lot. When I visited museums in the 1980s, they were badly equipped with broken lights and women were knitting sweaters at the door.”

Ma plans to leave his collection to society when he passes away.

“Antiques belong to the society. We are just temporary keepers. When looking at antiques, I often felt it was not I who was staring at them, but they were staring at me. Most have been passed on by at least 10 generations or up to 50 generations. We are passengers before them.”

He describes himself as a “passionate” and “diligent” man who “perseveres” in doing what he believes in.

A friend describes him as a “man with the most common sense.” Wang Gang, an actor and anchorman for a TV show on antiques, called him frank in determining the authenticity of antiques.

Once when a collector took out a curio for Ma to judge on a show, he called “the object interesting, it’s younger than me”. The collector took out another. Ma said “this one is younger than my son”. When another collector presented a cup, he announced “there are only three such cups in the world. You’ve got the fourth.”

To make sure he gets authentic antiques, Ma reads through basic books and takes every chance to study relics in museums, exhibitions or curio fairs.

Now he spends some days every month to help appraise “treasures” brought by visitors. “It exposes me to the pressure of market changes and helps me keep an eye on fake production technique changes. If you don’t follow the market changes closely for one or two years, you are out.”

Ma’s home is furnished with traditional hardwood furniture. “My son often cried when he bumped into them. But when he grew up, he could clearly remember a certain wooden chair that he had finished his homework on and had deep affection for it.”

Though he gained all his knowledge outside school, he wished he had “regular” education. He enjoys observing and talking on subjects like literature, art medicines and anthropology with unorthodox comments.

His obsession in seeking authenticity in antiques and social phenomena may come from his Taoism studies. “I’m an atheist, but I study Taoism for its philosophy. Taoism doesn’t have class differences. Many others have class divisions and discuss things in certain circumstances with time and space limits.”

Curios were dubbed “adult toys” in the past, providing intellectual pleasure for collectors. “Today people put monetary value before intellectual enjoyment. There is too much knowledge covered under an antique.”

Ma said he built the museum not to revive ancient culture, but to remind the offspring “we once arrived at such cultural prosperity”.

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