Flying Forward with the Chinese Dream: Three Museums in Harbin, Part II

In a previous post, I looked at the Museum of Heilongjiang Province and its dual messages of cosmopolitan engagement and nationalist fervour. The former aligned more neatly with China’s recent moves to establish itself as an outward-facing power, the hub in a global commercial network embodied in the One Belt, One Road initiative.

Two other Harbin museums neatly demonstrate how these messages come apart. The first, based around a former section of the Chinese Eastern Railway, takes the OBOR narrative to a new level by combining old structures, new media and everyday life in a mixed-use space. The latter, an older and quieter museum in Harbin’s Nangang district, is also housed in Railway property but maintains a nationalist perspective on the city’s history.

The platform at Harbin station reimagined at the Chinese Eastern Railway Park. Photo my own, taken August 2018.

The Chinese Eastern Railway Park and Museum
(Park opened to the public in November 2016, museum in 2017. Free of charge.)

Harbin’s newest museum, located in the Chinese Eastern Railway Park, is also its most experimental. Occupying a 2.7 km-long swathe of the former CER line on either side of the 1901 Binzhou Railway Bridge, the park encompasses both the north and south banks of the Songhua River. It is difficult to tell where its boundaries lie. In fact, the park-museum complex is not a defined educational or cultural space per se but an experiential one, in which historic sites are embedded in everyday leisure activities. Exercise classes take place on the grounds in front of the museum, next to a 1950s locomotive. A terrace garden includes a reconstruction of a railway platform (see above). Visitors can cross the Songhua on the old Binzhou Bridge – decommissioned in 2014 – taking in the city’s scenery as well as explanatory signs on the bridge’s history.  Halfway across, they can leave at Sun Island, a popular weekend spot with its own cultural attractions, including an ersatz “Russian Village” and a memorial to the Anti-Japanese United Army in Manchuria.

The path to the Binzhou Railway Bridge. The new Songhua bridge which replaced it is visible on the right. Photo my own, taken August 2018.

This was a deliberate decision, as a large marble sign explains in Chinese, English and Russian:

公园以‘轨·迹’为规划设计理念,以‘老江桥’及中东铁路建筑群的保护利用为重点,对已停用铁路空间转型、拓展与重构…构建城市景观廊,绿色慢行线和中东铁路文化展示带… 中东铁路公园拉近了人与自然、时间与空间、生活与休闲的距离,向宾客讲述着哈尔滨与铁路、历史与现实、绿色与文化的故事。

Guided by the principle of ‘Track to Trace’, the planning and design of the park has given priority to protective utilisation of the Old River Bridge as well as the CER architectural complex. Moreover, the transformation, expansion and reconstruction of the disused railway space…[presents] to the public a cultural corridor embodying urban landscape, a green route for promenade [sic], and a culture display belt retracing the CER history… The CER Park has bridged the gaps between human and nature, time and space, life and leisure, telling to tourists the stories of Harbin and the railway, history and modern life, green development and culture.

In keeping with this experiential approach, the museum is named the “Chinese Eastern Railway Impressions Hall” (中东铁路印象馆). Its facade is a reconstruction of the original, art-nouveau Harbin station, although it does not occupy the exact station site. Inside, the museum attempts to convey the grandeur of the Railway complex, including a chandelier, a “riverside pavilion”, and large-screen multimedia depictions of a Harbin street and Songhua river scenery based on historic photographs.

Multimedia screen depicting the first tramways introduced to Harbin, based on a 1927 photograph. The scene filled an entire wall. Photo my own, taken August 2018.

The museum’s more traditional displays mirror those of the Museum of Heilongjiang Province, including timelines of Railway and Harbin history; photos of railway construction and Russian emigre life; and models of Harbin’s architectural highlights. Explanations are mostly in Chinese, with some English and Russian translations.

Strikingly, however, there is almost no trace of the traditional nationalist narrative that is usually applied to Russian colonisation. Instead, this period is described in the English introduction as a “change which never occurred in the past thousand years” (千古未有之变局), ushering in a period of mobility and urban development that transformed Harbin into a “Eurasian transport and trading hub” (结欧亚交通之枢纽、居华洋商埠之重心). The cultural cross-pollination that resulted “linked European and Asian civilisations” (沟通欧亚文明) and brought international fame to the city. Going further, the introduction explicitly uses the Railway as a forerunner of OBOR and references Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream”:

从建国初期到改革开放,铁路联通睦邻友谊,通衢中俄经贸文化。从枢纽站到中心城,因路而兴的哈尔滨必将因路而盛。对接‘一带一路’,参与‘中蒙俄经济走廊’… 中东铁路故道旁,飞驰中国梦想。

From the early period of the new China to its reform and opening-up to the outside, the Chinese Eastern Railway promoted the friendship among neighbours and the economic, trade and cultural exchanges between China and Russia. Today, Harbin continues its ride due to the Chinese Eastern Railway, involved in the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and the ‘Sino-Mongolian-Russian Economic Corridor’… The ‘Chinese Dream’ flies forward by the old and familiar track of the Chinese Eastern Railway [ellipsis in original].

После образования КНР, в частности в процессе реализации политики реформы и открытости Китайский Восточная железная дорога вновь стала мостом добрососедства, дружбы, торговли и культурного обмена. Сегодняшний город, появившийся возле железной дороги в качестве узловой станции, стал центральным городом, включился в стратегии ‘Один пояс – один путь’ и ‘Экономический коридор Китая, Монголии и России’, и встал на путь процветания именно благодаря железной дороге. На земле, где протянулась Китайская Восточная железная дорога, реализуется китайская мечта.

Russian railway surveyors and their Chinese guard. From the Chinese Eastern Railway Impressions Hall. Photo my own, taken August 2018.

Detailed exhibits on the Railway describe it as part of the wider Trans-Siberian network, “connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans”. The 1929 Sino-Soviet conflict over the Railway and its 1935 sale to the Japanese is treated in fairly neutral terms. Even the Manchukuo administration is considered part of a chain of international engagement that gave Harbin its unique character (让哈尔滨在近代中西文明交流碰撞的进程中,具有着独特的坐标地位).

Perhaps the only traces of nationalist rhetoric come with the descriptions of Russo-Japanese involvement in Manchuria. The Treaty of Portsmouth, for example, is described in the Chinese-only text as taking place “without regard for Chinese sovereignty” (无视中国主权); Ito Hirobumi’s doomed 1909 visit to Harbin stemmed from a desire to “divide up China’s Northeast” (瓜分中国东北) with Russia. Compared to the well-worn anti-imperialist motifs found elsewhere, however, this museum and the wider park complex embody a new way of framing and presenting Harbin’s history. In an illuminating interview with some of the masterminds behind the Railway Impressions Hall, head of the Harbin municipal history research association Li Shuxiao explained that the question of foreign migrants in Railway history had been a “rather sensitive one”, but the time had come to “face up” to it openly and with equanimity. To Li, this was a sign of cultural confidence – no wonder, perhaps, when one views the high-speed trains passing on the new Songhua bridge.

The Nangang Museum. Source.

Harbin Nangang Museum
(Opened 2010, free entry, requires ID to enter. Photography prohibited.)

If the Railway Impressions Hall is expansive in its approach, this museum is at first glance far more modest, focusing mainly on Nangang’s history. During the Russian period, however, Nangang (or Novyi gorod, “New Town”) was Harbin’s administrative heart, where the Railway headquarters was located. The district therefore provides much scope for a museum; in fact, the Museum is located in the beautifully preserved former residence of the deputy director of the Railway.

In many ways, the Nangang Museum is the antithesis of the Impressions Hall. What it lacks in multimedia flash, it makes up for in atmosphere and an impressive collection of artefacts. Apart from the Binzhou Bridge, the Hall has had to recreate most of its exhibits. The Nangang Museum, however, is in the thick of former Railway buildings, and its narrow staircases and wooden corridors excite the historical imagination just as effectively. Its displays are mostly of the traditional type and in Chinese only: Photographs, maps and objects from Nangang and Harbin describing the Russian involvement in municipal development across a range of fields, such as public health, culture, education and commerce. Items from everyday life – from typewriters to tea services – add immensely to the museum’s setting.

Former residences for Russian workers on the CER. Buildings such as these can be found around the Nangang Museum. Photo my own, taken August 2018.

What I found in the explanatory sections was the same duality between a celebration of Harbin’s cosmopolitan history and anti-imperial sentiment that characterised the Provincial Museum. In Nangang, however, this was expressed in even starker terms. The first few rooms described how the people of the Northeast had “had their fill of imperialist bullying and feudalist and bureaucratic-capitalist oppression” (饱受帝国主义欺凌和封建主义、官僚资本主义压迫) between the First Opium War and 1949. Tsarist Russia and Japan turned Nangang into a colonial battlefield, as Russia “vainly attempted to swallow up the entire Northeastern region” (妄图并吞整个东北地区). Nevertheless, oppression fostered a will to resist and the people of Nangang heroically struggled for “national independence and liberation” (民族独立与解放). This aptly demonstrated “the Chinese people’s unbending and indomitable fighting spirit and profound sense of national integrity” (中国人不甘屈辱的大无畏斗争精神和崇高的民族气节). Coming before the subsequent exhibits on the contributions of Russian firefighters, teachers and vaccinators, this opening segment strikes a discordant note.

Both museums raise questions about presentation of history in China. Not only are their narratives weighted differently, their curatorial choices illuminate the tensions between the presentation of historical materials and their wholesale recreation; in other words, the use of artifice in promoting an interest in and understanding of history. In the same interview mentioned above, chief designer of the Impressions Hall Yang Hongwei explained that the museum’s final form was based on the fact that their crown jewel – the Binzhou Bridge – was outdoors, and traditional artefacts were in short supply. Cosmopolitan, cutting-edge Harbin history is therefore presented in a largely manufactured, mixed-use space that prompts reflection on China’s modernity and the new lifestyles of its people. And in Nangang, older heroic stories persist among colonial-era relics and gently crumbling Russian buildings, providing an anchor for acts of remembering.

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