Remembering the dark days of China's Cultural Revolution

Some 450 Chinese and foreigners marked this year's 36th anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution at a museum that bears sole witness to a dark history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2012, 11:10am
 

It has been 36 years since China marked the end of the Cultural Revolution, and Peng Qian has spent the last seven anniversaries doing something the government will not: holding public memorials at a museum he helped found, to remember the millions who languished and died during one of the nation's most tumultuous periods.

Located in a scenic coastal area of Chenghai district, Shantou , Guangdong, the Cultural Revolution Museum hosted the seventh memorial on August 8 to pay respects to the millions of Chinese who died because of the revolution.

In 1966, Mao Zedong , the chairman of the Communist Party, started the social-political movement to enforce socialism and impose Maoist orthodoxy by removing capitalist and cultural elements from society. That led to a decade of massive and widespread social upheavals that devastated China economically.

"We selected that day [August 8] because it was on that date in 1966 that the Central Committee … passed the decision to launch the Cultural Revolution, and we think it was a disastrous day for China," said Peng, 81, a former executive vice-mayor of Shantou and the primary founder of the museum - the only known one of its kind in China.

Peng said this year's memorial was attended by people from all walks of life from across China and abroad. Descendants of people who were tortured and killed came from places as far as Brazil and the United States to attend the event.

"Altogether 450 people attended the memorial and paid respects to people who died in the Cultural Revolution," he said.

"Although plain-clothes police were monitoring us as they have before, they didn't disturb us".

The memorial was relatively low profile, Peng said, noting that the local authorities did not want the memorial to draw much attention.

According to a working conference of the Communist Party's Central Committee in 1978, 20 million Chinese died in the revolution, 100 million were persecuted and 800 billion yuan was wasted.

The museum, a three-storey pavilion designed to resemble the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, was established in the Tashan Scenic Area in 2004 and was opened to the public in 2005. Featuring photographs, drawings, articles and other documentations of the period, it is one of 25 Cultural Revolution-related scenic spots located atop Tashan, or Tower Mountain, and the area is known as Tayuan, or Tower Park.

Starting in 1996, Peng built the scenic spots one at a time whenever he was able to raise enough money. He and the museum's co-founders are adamant about ensuring that people don't forget the dark chapter in China's history, while warning future generations to learn from the mistakes of the past, even if the government chooses not to discuss it.

Elsewhere in Shantou, atop a mountain in a neighbouring town, a week-long Buddhist prayer ceremony (which started on August 7) saw at least dozens of people a day paying their respects to the victims.

The ceremony took place in Tower Park in 2006 and 2007, but the government asked them to hold it elsewhere after that.

"We keep it small because most of those who attend are old people," said Du Qiaosheng , 61, a Tower Park staff member. "We don't want them to stand too long in the heat."

Peng said he thought of establishing a commemorative area in 1996 when he was an adviser of the Shantou government, after serving 10 years as deputy mayor. He was walking in the Tower Mountain area when he passed a series of tombs that contain the remains of more than 70 people who died during the revolution. The mountain was opened to the public in 1990; one side has a 900-year-old temple.

"I thought why not set up something to honour them and also to remind people of the disaster caused by the Cultural Revolution," Peng recalled saying to himself.

One of Peng's elder brothers, Lin Hua , was a high-school headmaster who was beaten to death in 1967 at the age of 46. His body was among those buried in the 25 tombs. Two of the tombs contain more than 20 bodies each, as the victims had died together amid public unrest in 1969 and their bodies could not be distinguished individually.

The annals of Shantou's Chenghai district show that more than 400 people were killed and 5,000 were mutilated there during the era.

But despite the obvious interest among the victims' descendants and the public, construction and expansion of the scenic area have come under political and financial pressures.

The founders, Peng said, had felt those pressures from the start. The district government initially overruled their request to set up the museum. Officials from the city and the provincial governments later inspected the park area, but did not answer their request.

"They did not refuse the request [to set up the museum] because the Communist Party has already condemned the Cultural Revolution. But they also did not dare to support it," Peng said.

The government eventually approved the construction, but it remains a politically-sensitive area.

However, the park was ordered to close in March and April of 2009, because of the opening sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Peng stressed that the museum was not affiliated with the government. But he used a special mayor's fund of 600,000 yuan (HK$733,370) as start-up funds for the park. As a government adviser, Peng was entitled to use the money at his discretion. Since then he has raised a substantial amount of money from businesses and government agencies that he used to oversee when he was in charge of the transportation, energy and telecommunications sectors.

Over the years, the park museum has attracted roughly 20 million yuan in donations. But as the museum does not receive regular donations, some projects have been delayed for as long as five years, until more money could be raised.

"We implement one plan and finish it when we have raised enough money. We don't have a lot of professional planning," said Tower Park staff member Du Qiaosheng.

The scenic area levies an entry fee of 10 yuan; more than 3 million people have visited the museum since 1996. In a scenic spot, referred to as "Resting Park", a wall is inscribed with the names of more than 6,400 people who died in the revolution.

The names came mostly from books about the era that Peng had read over the years. Farther up the stone stairs is a wall that lists around 100 kinds of tortures and hardships that the revolution's victims endured.

The park has also put up statues for a few heroes and victims of the revolution. They include Marshal Ye Jianying , a top military and political leader who helped end the Cultural Revolution; former chairman Liu Shaoqi , who died under persecution in 1969; and Confucius, whose classic works, a symbol of traditional culture, were destroyed by the Maoist regime.

One of the new additions is a statue of Wang Peiying , a deceased widow with seven children. Peng read a story about her in the Beijing-based Yanhuang Chunqiu magazine; the story said she was strangled to death in 1968.

Unlike many prominent revolution-era figures, Wang was just a dormitory cleaner. But what set her apart was that Wang, originally a Mao supporter like many others, had criticised the Great Leap Forward, which saw millions of people die of hunger. She also publicly criticised the Cultural Revolution and Mao on many occasions, and insisted on renouncing her party membership.

"If just one tenth of Chinese people had stuck to their conscience like Wang did, the tragedy might not have happened," Mao Yushi , a prominent economist, had said during a memorial held by Wang's children in Beijing in 2010.

Although the museum has few real objects left from the Cultural Revolution, there are more than 600 black stones on which content from a book about the Cultural Revolution are engraved. There are also 1,100 photographs and 290,000 characters from the book, Cultural Revolution Museum, on display. It was compiled by Yang Kelin, a Hong Kong publisher, and first printed in 1995 in Hong Kong.

Yang said he spent 10 years collecting most of the photographs from across the nation when he was a magazine photographer and editor based in Shanghai.

Tower Park staff member Du Qiaosheng said the museum used to feature a few badges and stamps that depicted Mao, but they were stolen about five years ago. Even so, the museum features more than 1,100 books about the Cultural Revolution and more than 1,200 paintings and pieces of calligraphy.

Peng, the museum's founder, lamented that there are few relics left, including those he once had.

"I was forced to wear long white paper hats and parade though the streets. It would have been something to have kept the hat," he said, explaining that he wore the hat while being publicly criticised on numerous occasions - from 1966, when he was party secretary of Jieyang county, to 1969 - for expressing ideas that contradicted those of the Cultural Revolution. Jieyang , which neighbours Shantou, is now a city.

Peng said he was on a list of five alleged anti-revolutionaries to be killed, but it was unclear why the execution was never carried out.

"I am not afraid of being punished for building the museum because I have already lived 40 years longer than I should have," he said.

Despite years of uncertainties, Peng said things seemed to be looking up. He was chosen this year as an "excellent party member" of Shantou, and he and his supporters view that as a positive response to their construction and upkeep of the museum.

Furthermore, Premier Wen Jiabao said this year that people should be wary about allowing events such as the Cultural Revolution from occurring again.

"Many visitors have asked us why we built such a museum," Peng said. "But I think a more important question is why has the government not built a museum for such an important event that lasted 10 years?

"Building such a museum would expose Mao's sins and the numerous untimely deaths during his rule.

"The position of the party might be not stable."

 

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