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September 14, 2009

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Home » District » Nanhui

Antiques collector shares history with farmers

TANG Liguo is a farmer through and through. He raises fish in his pond, grows eggplant in the courtyard, plants gingko trees in front of his house and runs a small grocery with his wife in a room facing a countryside road.

The 56-year-old Nanhui native is not only a happy farmer, however, he's also a collector of some very fine antiques and relics and has turned his house into a museum of artifacts, memorabilia and rare traditional Chinese medicine works.

Admission is free.

He's known in Sanduxia Town as "the collector," and history is his passion, made possible because he comes from a family of some means. His grandfather was a well-to-do town butcher who also ran a farm; his grandmother came from a well-off family and brought an impressive dowry.

His collecting hobby of 30 years was also helped by the fact that for many years antiques were not valued, so it was easy to find them. Today he buys and trades.

Last year Tang renovated his typical, two-story brick farmer's house, already stuffed with antiques and antiquities, into a museum showcase. He has six guard dogs for security.

Private museum

In the remote peaceful village, his private museum has been his fellow farmers' favorite hang-out on weekends, during holidays and in slow seasons.

Stepping into Tang's unassuming house-cum-museum is like going back in time.

A two-handled tripod bronze ding (an ancient cooking or ritual vessel) carved with animal patterns sits on a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) tea table, right next to a life-size statue of late Chairman Mao Zedong.

On the other side of the room is a colorful vase from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The walls are hung with Chinese ink paintings from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). There are row on row of red lacquer baskets, boxes and food hampers as well as old farming implements.

"I still find this house is too small and I'm thinking of expanding it next year," says Tang.

His collection also includes ancient coins, funerary items, embroidery, furniture, coupons, maps, 1930s record players, Chairman Mao memorabilia of all kinds and rare TCM prescriptions from a famous Shanghai doctor.

Tang fell in love with antiques and bits of China's past when he was 13 and stumbled upon ancient coins in his grandfather's room during a game of hide-and-seek with his cousins. "Those old Chinese characters on the coins were so beautiful," he says.

From then on little Tang started buying ancient coins from neighbors with his pocket money. "People at that time had no idea of the value of these coins. Some of them just gave them to me for free," he recalls.

Every time he went off hunting for game with his grandfather, Tang would venture to abandoned tombs to collect old bowls used to hold food for the dead in the next life. They were usually left after the memorial ceremony.

"Some bowls could even date back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220)," he says, "but most people didn't know what they were and discarded them."

What was worse, he says, during the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) his father tossed many valuable pieces, such as bronze pots, metal incense burners and hand warmers into furnaces to make iron in the misguided rush to industrialization.

One of his most valuable coins was from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). One one side was a horse and on the other were two characters, Jue Bo, the name of the owner who had the coin minted.

From coins, Tang was drawn into the history of China.

"Coins and other antiques were closely tied to the social and economic development of each dynasty," he says. "The slight difference in materials used might reflect a great change in society.

During the past three decades, Tang has visited almost every province on his collecting forays.

In his spare time, he loves to sip a cup of green tea and sit down for a whole day to savor his collection.

One of his most extraordinary collections is the set of "secret" TCM prescriptions from many famous doctors in Shanghai in the Qing Dynasty. A book, "Shen Luzhen's Prescriptions," is the most valuable.

Shen, a Nanhui native, was a famous doctor who once cured the ailment of Emperor Qianlong's mother and was rewarded with bags of royal gold coins.

Shen's book contains hundreds of practical prescriptions and descriptions of cases he treated.

In the mid 1990s, a Japanese collector offered Tang 800,000 yuan (US$117,647) for the book, but he refused. The prospective buyer continued to visit Tang and finally offered more than 1 million yuan. But it was no deal.

"It is not a matter of money. These books are the great essence of Chinese medicine, which is priceless," Tang says.

He hopes he can cooperate with a medical school or hospital to develop the prescriptions into patent medicine to help many people - a paper in a home museum cannot heal.

Chairman Mao memorabilia is an important category of collection. Tang has more than 10,000 Mao buttons, statues, portraits, tea mugs and other items. He has each edition of Mao's quotations. He also has an extensive collection reflecting late Premier Zhou Enlai and the 10 generals who help founded the People's Republic of China.

The museum's security guards are Tang's six dogs that he raised for years. One time he lent them to his son, a thief broke into the museum, but only took cash from a drawer.

Next year he plans to build a separate structure to house his collection and he hopes more people can stop to buy and enjoy history.

"My fellow farmers are very interested," says Tang. "They can spend hours in my museum appreciating my collection and listening to the stories behind them."


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