Andrew Ancheta searches for China’s many lost antiquities with the masters of Beijing’s sprawling Panjiayuan antique markets.
At Panjiayuan, the people are outnumbered by the immortals. The market is home to a polytheistic jumble of carved demons, guardian-figures, Buddhas, emperors, fantastic beasts and minor deities, all crowded together cheek to jowl. Most of them are only knee or waist high, but many are life-sized or larger, including a towering thirty-foot sculpture of Guan Yu, the warrior-god of Taoism. Several colossal dragons snarl menacingly at passersby, alongside a pair of antlered lions with scaly hooves. If these terrifying features really scare away malign spirits, as superstitious locals still believe, then the Beijing Antiques Market must be exceptionally free from misfortune.
Informally known as Panjiayuan, the market claims to be the biggest site for antiquities in China, and a quick circuit of the 26,000 square metres of shopping space is enough to erase all doubt. Every day, nearly ten thousand dealers meet here at the rim of the capital to scrounge for bargains or buyers, and more crowd outside the market gates.
Some of the stores are housed in four or five mall-like buildings, but these are usually deserted: the openair market is where the real fun happens. There the sellers, crowded together under tents, spend their days bickering and haggling over old jewelry and imperial artifacts.
“I’ve been here for thirty years,” says a shopkeeper named Mai, who squats next to a carpet displaying a collection of Republican-era watches and coins, and the snaking tube of an opium pipe still streaked with residue. When China began to relax its commerce laws in the 1980s, he says, Panjiayuan became an impromptu flea market for all the emptied attics and basements of China’s not-yet-rich. “There are a lot of fakes here,” he says. “But much less than in other markets of Beijing.” He goes on to generously offer me what he promises is a thousand-year-old coin for “only” nine hundred yuan. I say I’ll think about it.
There is also more recent memorabilia. Life-sized busts and portraits of Mao Zedong stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other graven images, and the Chairman gazes up from long ranks of collectible buttons and medals, a hot fashion item during the sixties. He’s even printed on porcelain plates, for those inclined to invite the Great Helmsman to a home cooked meal.
All of this, however, is buried beneath a hopeless tangle of secondhand baubles, mummified animal parts, mystery boxes, typewriters, old coins, cold-war radios and broken telescopes—the bric and brac of a million emptied households.
“It’s like sifting for gold,” says elderly Mr. Li, who spends his retirement strolling between the rows of curios. “Most of the things here are just garbage but once in a while you can find something really special.”
This isn’t just archaeology. Traditional Chinese art forms are still alive and kicking, and the market has many rows of shops specialising in paintings and calligraphy. Although the works are new, some of the styles haven’t changed in centuries.
“In traditional poetry, having correct handwriting was very important,” says Guan Hailan, the proprietor of a bathroomsized stall. “It’s like music, you need good rhythm.” It’s also a skill of discipline and self-mastery: the slightest tremble or pause will be reflected in the brushstrokes. And forget about touching-up afterwards—experts can spot a cheater. He shows me a pair of couplets on rice paper, and the brushstrokes are so neat and straight they could have been made with a ruler.
Traditional calligraphers strive to copy older masters as closely as possible, but modern calligraphy is more flexible. Guan shows me a piece in a newer style; the writing, printed on huge orange sheets with a mop-sized brush, shows a line of Buddhist scripture, but the characters are drawn to resemble the silhouettes of robed monks at prayer.
“Sure, there are some fakes here in Panjiayuan,” Guan admits. The only way to avoid them, he says, is to research the artists and their styles. Like all the shopkeepers I speak with, he insisted that none of his wares are forgeries.
The market’s administration strongly discourages fakes, and an appraiser’s office near the entrance offers a helpful validation for doubtful customers. Although there is plenty of coloured glass and faux trophies, there are few of the souvenir clichés and cookie-cutter copies hawked at every tourist trap in China. “A lot of people come here looking for something fitting to hang in their office; they don’t necessarily mind if it’s not truly authentic,” Mr. Li tells me. “But still, be careful what you buy.”