It's an unlikely venue for a toy show. Paramilitary troops and
surface-to-air missiles guard this vast, Soviet-style exhibition
palace in western Beijing, but they are unlikely to fend off a long-
running assault on the fragile materials inside.
The Museum of Military Affairs is showcasing Beijing opera masks,
giant pinwheels, hand-inscribed paper balls, and other antique
playthings that are likely to fall victim to the march of time and
forces of globalization.
"China's market reforms and opening to the world have been great
for the economy, but are threatening the survival of folk toys and
other remnants of our cultural past," says toy collector Liang
Mr. Liang organized the just-opened exhibit of ancient toys at
the unlikely military museum forum in a bid to preserve this piece
of the Chinese arts into the next century.
China's two-decade drive toward global integration has unleashed
rapid-fire changes here: Chinese youths drink Coca-Cola while
watching "Star Wars" or surfing the Web, and a generation gorge
separates them from their grandparents. Mickey Mouse, Belgian
cartoon character Tin Tin, and Sony PlayStations have invaded
Chinese toy stores, and children across the country are in danger of
losing all ties to their cultural roots, says Liang.
"Kids today only want to play with electronic games that bring
instant gratification and happiness," he says. "The simpler toys of
the past forced children to use their imagination, and each toy
carried a treasure house of information about China's past and its
Liang's nearby courtyard home, in the middle of a maze of
hutongs, narrow alleyways, is a time capsule of toys from virtually
every corner of China and every stage of its millennia-long history.
The retired toy-factory manager has traveled from the northern
steppes of Inner Mongolia to the southern tropics of Hainan Island
in his quest to rescue traditional toys.
"These tiny people," says Liang as he points to a group of inch-
high, hand-painted clay figures, "represent Beijingers at the turn
of the 19th century." The Chinese Lilliputians include stilt-
walkers, a hawker banging a tin drum to advertise his wares, and a
craftsman preparing to mend an iron bowl.
"They have all faded from Beijing's streets, and now their
replicas could completely fade from our memories as the last
artisans who create these figures die," says Liang.
Holding up an intricately painted shadow puppet, the collector
explains how the first Chinese screen stars evolved. "These puppets
were used as far back as the Song Dynasty (960-1279)," he says. …