While you're in China, you'll be able to absorb its culture in nearly everything you do -- the Olympic Games aside -- and if you attend the Games' opening or closing ceremonies, there will be a smattering of culture there, too. In this brief digest, we'll consider mostly the arts of the Central Kingdom (as it used to be called) that you can see on the ground there and that you need not understand the Chinese language in order to appreciate.
The best of Chinese fine arts are in its museums, and while many pieces of the very best have long since flown to places like Taiwan, Tokyo, Boston, London, Paris, San Francisco or Kansas City, there are several outstanding collections in the homeland.
These are my personal rankings of the six best, so don't consider them graven in stone:
1. I like the Shanghai Museum best of all I've seen in China, partly because it has excellent English-language signage, but mostly for the impressive way its exhibits are arranged. You can get a good education in Chinese art just by studying carefully the works in the 11 galleries here, as well as in their special exhibition halls. "Only" 120,000 items here, less than in Beijing, Xian, or Taiwan, but enough for several days if you have the time. The 1996 building itself somewhat resembles a Chinese bronze pot. Website www.shanghaimuseum.net.
2. The Shanxi History Museum (1983-2001) in Xian is one of China's two or three best, with treasures dating back to the Shang Dynasty (c. 17th to 11th centuries BCE). The Frommer's China guidebook suggests looking out especially for the Tang Dynasty frescoes and a collection of ceramic tomb guardians. Website www.sxhm.com.
3. The Hong Kong Museum of History opened in 2001, a favorite section of it being a recreated street, complete with an original Chinese herbal medicine shop that was operating in the Central District until 1980 before being moved to the museum. Website www.lcsd.gov.hk/CE/Museum/History.
5. Sanxing Dui Museum, in Chengdu, houses an amazing collection of ancient sculptures, masks and ritual bronzes, the oldest dating back to the 14th century BCE. They're housed in a circular-shaped modern (1997) building, about 25 miles of Chengdu. All these were taken form a tomb discovered in 1986. Website www.china.org.cn/e-sanxingdui. Note: attempts to determine whether the museum was damaged in the serious May 2008 earthquake in this area have not been answered.
6. The official Chinese name of the Forbidden City in Beijing is Gu Gong (the Palace Museum). The art treasures include the marvelous architecture of gates and buildings, with smaller pieces arranged in several halls, the most popular of which are these: Palace of Supreme Harmony (thrones), Hall of Perfect Harmony (carved marble), Palace of Earthly Tranquility (bed chamber), Hall of Mental Cultivation, Hall of Jewelry, and the Hall of Clocks (many European ones). Website www.dpm.org.cn/English/default.asp.
Ask your hotel front desk or concierge to assist you in buying tickets for these events.
Down in Hong Kong, they have both the Beijing style and the Cantonese style of operas, the latter less spectacular. The Cantonese version can be found at regular performances in City Hall, the Hong Kong Cultural Center, and in town halls throughout the New Territories.
Shanghai performs Beijing-style opera with its own troupe at the Yifu Theater.
In Xian, there are two choices, each with dinner and English-language commentary for the Beijing-style shows. I liked the Tang Dynasty show for its marvelous music and dancing. Also good are the performances at the Shanxi Grand Opera House.
For Beijing, the estimable Frommer's China suggests, in this order, Wansheng Juchang or Chaoyang Juchang.
In Beijing, little bits of opera, acrobatics, singing and dancing can be had at the Lao She Teahouse or the Tian Qiao Happy Tea House, the latter with dinner, both with snacks and tea.
The only one in Beijing is the China Puppet Art Theater, heir to shows that have been performed since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE).
The last show in Xian is that of the Shanxi Hu Xian Piying Yishutuan, but its future is in doubt, so check ahead.
Classical Chinese Music
In Beijing, check out the Sanwei Bookstore for concerts on Saturdays. (On Friday, they feature jazz.)
In the former British colony, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra plays both traditional and modern music, in the world's largest Chinese-instrument orchestra, some 80 members in all. Performances at City Hall and the Hong Kong Cultural Center.
Classical Western/Chinese Music
The Beijing Symphony Orchestra performs mostly Western music at the Beijing Concert Hall, but occasionally plays modern classical Chinese works, too.
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Read more about Beijing and China in Frommers.com's Summer Olympic Games 2008 package.