If you subscribe to my newsletter, you know I got really sick last week. On one of those days where I should have stayed in bed, I went on a little field trip with my husband’s class to two museums, one of which is in all the tourist magazines, the other I had never heard of. After seeing it, I cannot believe the Nanjing Folk Museum isn’t talked about more!
The reason I think the Nanjing Folk Museum is the most underrated place in Nanjing is because of the sheer variety of traditional art forms you get to experience live. Not only are these the kinds of things only-seen-in-China, but many of them are specific to Nanjing. For only 10 RMB, you can learn a crazy amount of fascinating stuff about Chinese folk history and dying Chinese art forms.
Click the Image Below To Watch The Nanjing Folk Museum Vlog On My YouTube Channel!
Live Art Exhibitions At Nanjing Folk Museum
I think the artist exhibitions at this museum vary a little bit from day-to-day, so the ones I listed below are the ones we saw the day we went.
The wood carver’s works are gorgeous, smooth, detailed, and the part that you can’t see is that they smell AMAZING! He carves, sands, and finishes it all by hand.
Kong Zhu (pronounced “kong joo”)
This is the juggling thing you saw happening in the video. Basically, he’s got a free-flying double-belled apparatus, and two sticks attached by a string. The sound made comes from the holes around the bells of the flying piece.
I don’t personally find this art form terribly exciting, probably because there’s so much cutesy-ness and bright colors (not my taste), but the artist we were speaking with in the video is one of the few males practicing this art form.
This practice is over 1,000 years old. There are 11 basic knots that all designs start from, and then they grow in complexity (I’m assuming infinitely) from there. The knots are almost always symmetrical, and most are done for a hanging tassel design. A lot of people in China will hang these from the rear-view mirror in their car, or somewhere in their home.
You’ve probably seen booths at festivals where they carve your name onto a grain of rice, but this is the real deal. The one I showed you in the video is a design featuring 5 horses on a piece of stone smaller than my pinky fingerprint.
Velvet Flower Art
I didn’t portray it well in the video, but this art form is fascinating. 1,000 years ago this was the most popular style of accessory to have in China and people always wore velvet-flower accessories for big occasions like their wedding. That red wedding headpiece shown at the end is a velvet-flower design. I believe the artist in my video is famous velvet-flower artist Zhao Shu-xian. In order to craft the design, he has to boil, dye, and heat treat silk velvet before even beginning the process. The next step is hand crafting and trimming what look to me like pipe cleaners, and then he magically crafts gorgeous pieces out of them. It’s really mind-blowing.
Kunqu (pronounced “kwen-choo”) is a form of Chinese opera. It’s really similar to Peking opera and varies in ways that I honestly can’t recognize. The style of singing, as you can see in the video, is very high-pitched, loud, and almost follows the same pitch and melody of the lead string instrument. It dates back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and has quite the history. I’m not going to get into it fully here, but I put a picture below to illustrate the intricate costumes and makeup that goes along with theater performances of this style music, and I’ll link the Wikipedia page here.
Chinese Opera Face Painting
This guy paints Chinese opera makeup onto hand-drawn faces, and I’m pretty sure he does it all day because of the way his studio looks. The makeup is meant to portray certain emotions and caricatures, and it’s usually really complicated.
More Exhibits at the Nanjing Folk Museum
In case you’re unable to visit this awesome museum yourself, or if you’re like me and you can’t read any of the signs, I included a TON of fascinating information below about some of the Chinese folk history featured at the Nanjing Folk Museum.
Former Qing Dynasty residence
The Nanjing Folk Museum is located in the former residence of a Nanjing Qing Dynasty official named Gan Fu, and later on his son, Gan Xi. It’s also referred to as the Gan Family Mansion. There’s some numerology going on in this house that mirrors other important Chinese buildings. The Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing has 9,999 and a half rooms, the Temple of Confucius in Qufu has 999 and a half rooms. This residence supposedly has 99 and a half rooms. It actually has over 300, but sometimes this is how they tell stories in China.
My favorite part of any culture is definitely learning about the traditional instruments. I saw 2 at the Nanjing Folk Museum that I wanted to tell you about, and then I’ll link a fun video below that explains a few others.
First is the guqin (pronounced “goo-cheen”), which is like a guitar that’s held horizontally on the lap. It’s got a gorgeous sound to it that’s described as “subtle and refined”, and is often called “the father of Chinese music”. Qin instruments date back to 5,000 years ago. The guqin has 7 strings and it’s played by a gentle plucking motion.
The other instrument I saw at the Nanjing Folk Museum is the erhu (pronounced “are-who”), which is like a violin, but has some VERY different features. First of all, the strings are super close together, and the bow is never detached from them, instead running between the 2 strings. So basically when you move the bow back and forth, you’re playing both strings at the same time. The second crazy feature is that there is no board backing the strings, so when you press down, you’re pressing the string and nothing else. The last unique feature I’ll share about the erhu is that you cannot make a true erhu without using python skin. This instrument is over 1,000 years old, and to this day is the most popular choice for Chinese street performers who play traditional instrumental music.
For a more in-depth explanation, sound clips, and 5 more important Chinese instruments, I highly recommend you watch this video.
Nanjing brocade is a vital piece of Nanjing history, but I’m not going to get into it here because I did in my last blog post! Be sure to go check it out if you haven’t already.
I’m going to have a lot more information coming to you soon about baiju, but the jist of it is that it’s a Nanjing-specific form of Chinese opera that’s sort of going extinct. It was developed by loom operators to entertain themselves while creating Nanjing brocade. It takes 2 people to operate those huge looms, so they would sing back and forth, and then use chopsticks and saucers as percussion.
I wrote a post about Chinese paper cutting and showed you some examples of paper cutting projects I did, but they’ve seriously got nothing on the intricate, gorgeous designs showcased at the Nanjing Folk Museum. Check this picture out below – that’s all done by hand!
Buddhist Book Printing
I loved the exhibit at the Nanjing Folk Museum that shows the tools and process used by Buddhists back in the day to hand-print tons of books. First, they hand-carve a stamp out of a block of wood, but they have to carve each character backwards so that, once stamped, it reads the right way. Before stamping, they have this tool to brush on ink, another tool to wipe it down to just the right amount of ink, and then hammer-like tools to get the stamp done evenly. That’s ONE page. Totally mind-blowing!
Tactics For Scaring Ghosts
A lot of Chinese parade costumes, floats, and practices can seem really creepy, and that’s because a lot of it is used to scare ghosts or evil spirits away. Even fireworks and those big drums are sometimes used as scare tactics.
Zhua Zhou (pronounced “jwah-joo”) is the practice of putting your 1-year-old on a big straw mat and predicting their future career by the item they choose from the mat. From what I can tell, this is still a practice today because there’s YouTube videos and blog posts from the past year of parents doing this with their 1-year-old. It seems kind of crazy and archaic to me, and wouldn’t you just put the item in front of them that you want them to pick? Just sayin…
Traditional Chinese Weddings
Red is the color of choice for the dresses, veils, and headpieces as you can see from the end of the video. The bride rides out of her wedding in style in one of those big box things, and her feet cannot touch the ground for the duration of the ride. They take her to her husband’s house, where she finally gets to remove the red veil that’s been covering her face the whole time. There’s a lot of other rituals, too, like presenting gifts to families and a lot of bowing.
Let me know which piece of Chinese folk history fascinates you the most by leaving a comment!
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon,
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