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By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: May 29, 2005
SHANTOU, China – 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 decade-long descent into madness, beginning in the mid-1960’s.
There is Mao swimming in the Yangtze River in 1966, giving a bravura demonstration of his vigor at age 72, and a false sign of hope to a country almost religiously devoted to him. The weeks and months ahead would instead reveal that time to be the dawn of a new and terrible era, during which perhaps a half million people were killed, a few of whom are buried in these hills alongside the trails that lead to the exhibits.
“Under heaven, all is chaos,” Mao wrote, announcing the era’s tone exultingly to his wife and co-instigator, Jiang Qing, in a letter quoted on another tablet. From that point, the slate panels function almost like a newsreel as the events, ever more senseless, unfold. There are the huge rallies in Beijing that August, where millions of young people, inspired by Mao’s utopian oratory, waved their Little Red Books in frenzied adulation as he spoke.
There is the arrest and humiliation of the state president, Liu 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.
Then, finally, come the stunningly candid scenes of Mao himself, growing more decrepit by the frame, physically decomposing, the Communist demigod rotting in his armchair by the end of the decade of horror, like an overripe fruit. In some scenes, Chairman Mao is barely able even to hold his head upright as his country falls apart around him.
It has taken 29 years for anyone in China to mount a public exhibit on the period of state-sponsored terror and turmoil that swept this country from 1966 to 1976. And it is telling that it has happened here, on the outskirts of this out-of-the-way city in the northeastern corner of Guangdong Province, far from the public eye.
Just as remarkable is the hush that surrounds the museum, which provincial officials have reportedly ordered newspapers here not to write about. Chinese intellectuals who have published novels and nonfiction accounts of the Cultural Revolution describe restrictions like those as the product of a system that, while open like never before for the world’s business, still remains determined to manage what the public can and cannot learn and what they should remember and forget.
“I had to talk to 10 publishing houses before I could get my last novel published,” said Ke Yunlu, a writer who has focused unrelentingly on the Cultural Revolution. “In it, a group of students stoned their teacher to death, and after 10 years, when there is an investigation, nobody admits anything. This is what history is like in China: no stones are ever thrown, but people are dying.”
Recently China has demanded that Japan face up to the brutal history of its conquest of this country between 1937 and 1945, but for the Cultural Revolution, not yet a generation into the past, the country’s archives remain closed and academic conferences and seminars banned.
“It is very unhealthy for a nation to forget about its past,” said Zhang Xianliang, one of China’s best known authors, who was arrested at age 20 for a poem deemed counterrevolutionary during another period of ideological fervor, in the late-1950’s. He spent most of the Cultural Revolution in labor camps. “Our history and our memory are full of empty pages. We still can’t talk publicly about Mao’s crimes, but that day will come.”
At the end of the 1970’s, many Chinese vented their feelings about the arbitrary destruction of millions of lives and careers during the Cultural Revolution, and for a time the subject enjoyed a vogue among writers.
What could be said in the press, however, was strictly limited and debate was reined in by a government made nervous by the criticism.
Eventually, a bland official judgment said that during Mao’s career he had been “right” 70 percent of the time.
A visitor at first found the museum here 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 Mr. 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 1960’s and 1970’s.
Three local men in their 30’s, 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 this city 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.
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