The Cultural Revolution Museum

I’ve never been to Shantou, but if I ever do this new museum will be the first place I visit. (Do you think it was intentional that China’s first memorial to the CR is hidden away in a most obscure location?)

Nothing but the faint sound of birds nesting on surrounding hilltops can be heard inside this new mountaintop site — part museum, part monument — that is the first public commemoration of one of the darkest chapters in China’s recent past.

Inside the circular pavilion that is the site’s centerpiece, the walls are lined with a series of gray tablets, each starkly engraved with images depicting the Cultural Revolution, China’s decadelong descent into madness, beginning in the mid-1960s….

There is the arrest and humiliation of the state president, Lui Shaoqi, who was denounced as a “capitalist roader” and beaten severely. He “died under tragic conditions,” in the delicate wording of the museum, a private institution opened earlier this year without the blessings of a government that still prefers to suppress discussion of past atrocities.

There is the smashing of priceless antiquities and the burning of books by Red Guard militias, part of a heedless rush to sweep away the old and build a new society from scratch. There are the denunciations and beatings of teachers, and later of the students by students themselves, as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began to devour its own children.

Read this funny-sad article to see how the government has hushed up the museum’s existence to a bare whisper, and how the crowds aren’t exactly pouring in. Read it to see how futile the reporter’s efforts were to get anyone to comment on the new memorial.

A visitor at first found the museum at Shantou abandoned but for a lonely guard, whose teeth were stained by constant intake of tea and tobacco. The hilltop is home to a pagoda; steles in honor of Communist leaders, like Liu, and Deng Xiaoping, who were victims of Mao’s purges; and, at the summit, a large cement ink brush and book, apparently intended to symbolize freedom of speech.

On a return visit the next morning, the site was overrun with laughing schoolchildren, but their teachers insisted the Cultural Revolution’s history was not being taught to them and said the outing was merely intended to give the students some fresh air. Pressed to say how she would explain the killings and purges if a curious student inquired, one teacher said, “I’d just say every country makes mistakes.”

Later, a couple of elderly women who acknowledged living through the period dodged questions about their impressions of the museum, and walked away when asked about their experiences of the 1960s and 1970s.

Three local men in their 30s, one of them using a video camera, also toured the site. “Every family had some kind of experience of this history,” one of them said. Asked if he had heard the stories of his parents and grandparents, he said, “They only say China is growing now, and it is better to look to the future.”

Even the museum’s founder, Peng Qian, a former deputy mayor of Shantou who raised money for it from private donations including one from the Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, dodged a reporter’s requests to meet, saying he was too busy and later turning his telephone off to avoid further calls.

My favorite line cites one of the few statements in the Chinese press about the museum, which artfully fudges Mao’s role in the great social catastrophe, claiming that all in all Mao did the right things for China about 70 percent of the time. I guess the CR, the Great Leap Forward, the ruin of China’s environment and all the other misery that came in Mao’s wake can just be dismissed as minor indiscretions in an otherwise illustrious career.

Well, at least they erected this museum, even if it’s in the most obscure place. It’s at least a step in the right direction, if a very small and timid step.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

I saw a television programme about Jung Chang’s new biography of Mao yesterday. It mentioned that during the 1980s the CCP decided that Mao was seventy per cent a great leader and great Marxist theorist and thirty per cent wrong. So that’s all right then.

June 5, 2005 @ 6:30 pm | Comment

Just to response on the Jung Chang’s book, I dont think the biography seems to be fair enough.

Basically, the details of Mao of this book is leaning to one side: completely negative. She holds a gesture which is to tell the readers gospels by seriously making a character assassination on Mao.

June 6, 2005 @ 1:18 am | Comment

I think many young Chinese don’t know much about events like the Cultural Revolution because parents (at least around here) seem remarkably disinclined to talk about the past.

I have encountered intelligent, well-informed Chinese in their 20s who scoffed at the notion that anyone died of hunger during the Great Leap Forward (Jasper Becker estimates 30 million starved to death), even though their parents obviously lived through this difficult time and experienced it first hand.

I wonder if this is related to another phenomenon I have noticed: only a small percentage of younger (under age 30) Chinese I have asked have any idea of how their parents first met.

I often use this question in class, and am always surprised at how few can answer it. Older (>30 yrs) students, on the other hand, are much more likely to know the story of how their parents met and married.

And then there is always the possibility that this is a Shanghai pheonomenon. Comments?

June 6, 2005 @ 11:21 am | Comment

Slim, is the Jasper Becker book Hungry Ghosts worth a read? I saw it last time in HK but didn’t buy it as I hadn’t heard anything about it before.

Do tell please.

June 8, 2005 @ 5:00 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.