NEWS

Boston Children's Museum Exhibit designed to 'demystify China'

Chris Bergeron

Two months before the Olympic Games, typical American kids met four of their not-so-different counterparts from Hangzhou, China, at the Boston Children's Museum.

Seventh-grader Zoe Kaplan appeared on stage at the Yellow Dragon Theater, twirling her gown's long sleeves like a Chinese drama queen. Visiting with his grandpa, 4-year-old Malcolm Balk-Purgian pounded on a drum with such gusto a passing woman blocked her ears.

Sitting in a Chinese classroom, fourth-grader Ava Schisler of Atlanta learned to add on an abacus. Standing tippy-toe before a make-believe oven, tiny Rebecca Bryan prepared a plate of pineapple chicken from colorful rubbery ingredients.

They were just some of the young visitors Tuesday afternoon enjoying "Children of Hangzhou," a fun exhibit that uses interactive activities to familiarize Americans of all ages with life in Boston's Sister City in the People's Republic of China.

From the other side of the world, four Chinese youngsters matched their curiosity and innocent enthusiasm in highly engaging video profiles at the heart of this exhibit.

Gail Wang, who manages the museum's Asia Program, said the show was designed to "demystify China" by showing the everyday lives of four representative children.

Born Wang Gangliu in Hangzhou, she developed the exhibit's content by collaborating with artists, academic specialists and community members from the United States and her native land. "Making the exhibit, our goal was to educate visitors about China so people in Boston and across the country could learn about its culture through real children," she said.

Wang said the exhibit opens a window into Chinese life at a time when the world's eyes are focusing on the 2008 Beijing Olympics and earthquake-ravaged Sichuan province.

Located on the Yangtze River delta near China's east coast, Hangzhou is considered one of China's most beautiful cities with ancient temples, fabulous gardens and scenic West Lake. Founded 2,200 years ago, the city, which has a population of 6.4 million, came to be known as "the Venice of Asia" for its many canals.

Designed by BCM staff and sponsored by State Street Bank and National Endowment for the Humanities, the show will be at the museum through Jan. 4 before making a three-year, eight-city tour of the United States and Canada.

Located in the renovated third-floor Global Gallery, the exhibit examines key aspects of modern Chinese life, such as agriculture, arts, education and family relations, through its subjects' daily activities.

Living up to its subtitle, "Connecting With China," it uses four very likable youngsters to show ordinary Chinese children planting rice, studying traditional opera, attending school or cooking a birthday meal for grandparents.

Ranging from 12 to 16 years of age, the two boys and two girls in the show share their lives through videos that can be played in four languages: English, Spanish, China's most prevalent Beijing dialect and Cantonese.

Like youngsters everywhere, the children reveal a familiar mix of adventure, awkwardness, independence and the universal pursuit of fun.

Wang said exhibit designers chose a pair of boys and girls from the countryside and city to suggest the ancient Taoist principle of yin-yang, which suggests the harmonious interaction of opposites.

Through videos, the children share their daily lives which, like China today, combines both revered traditions like filial piety and current lifestyles including fancy clothes, modern appliances and cutesy Hong Kong pop singers.

In a village outside Hangzhou, an open-faced 15-year-old girl nicknamed "Little Beans" learns to plant rice and feed her grandfather's water buffalo.

Visiting his grandmother's apartment, helpful Weicheng wants to show his devotion by preparing a 60th birthday meal for his beloved "nai nai" but needs help slicing the long noodles.

At the actual Yellow Dragon Theater, a slim, serious 16-year-old student of traditional Chinese opera named Qianyun rehearses for a performance of "White Snake Lady."

Wearing a Lucky Strike T-shirt, popular Gangzheng can't wait to escape his math class to play pingpong, badminton and jump rope with his friends.

The exhibit features several child-friendly interactive activities that provide hands-on encounters with life in Hangzhou or the surrounding countryside.

After trying on several colorful opera gowns, 8-year-old Schisler tried moving a cumbersome wooden plough that would be pulled through rice paddies by a water buffalo. Visiting from Boone, N.C., with relatives, 10-year-old Addie Hall used a stereo viewer to look at 3-D photographs of the Great Wall, kite fliers and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. And red-haired Philip Kenny of Jamaica Plain seemed engrossed by an activity that showed how written characters for "fish," "book" and "shell" have changed over 2,000 years, generally becoming less pictorial and more stylized.

In the Hangzhou Children's Library, visitors can learn several phrases, such as "ni hao," for hello, or "women da lan cho-ba," for let's play basketball.

While there's no Chinese version of "Grand Theft Auto," children who just need to play video games can assume the digitalized role of legendary General Cao Cao in the Battle of the Red Cliffs.

Wang pointed out that the exhibit features several components, such as a bus stop "to meet" the youngsters, a classroom with wooden desks, a circular pavilion with carvings of magpies to encourage longevity and a theater with traditional instruments including a drum and a Yue-qin, or moon-shaped lute.

But most symbolic, she said, is a dragon-shaped map illustrated with details of China's long history that suggest its people's pride in their rich culture and successful drive toward modernization.

"The map is like a bridge between China's past and future," Wang said. "And it's a bridge connecting China's people to the other countries of the world."

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Boston Children's Museum is located at 300 Congress St., Boston.

It is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Fridays until 9 p.m.

Children 2 to 15 years old and senior citizens are $8; other adults are $10; 1-year-olds are $2. On Fridays from 5 to 9 p.m., all visitors are $1.

Infants under 1 are always free.

For more information, call 617-426-8855 or visit www.bostonkids.org.