Tortured for protecting ancient artefacts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 December, 2004, 12:00am

For Ma Chengyuan, as for other intellectuals, the blackest years of the communist era were the Cultural Revolution. Chairman Mao Zedong ordered the Red Guards to destroy the 'four olds', including art from the pre-revolutionary era.

As they rampaged through the homes of terrified collectors, Ma slept in his office to field telephone calls and sent museum staff to protect and catalogue artefacts. They locked the exhibits in storerooms.

Ma ordered his staff to disguise themselves as Red Guards and paint revolutionary slogans over the display cases. 'When the Red Guards arrived, we told them that we were busy making revolution ourselves.'

Local families entrusted their heirlooms for safekeeping to the museum, which had many crates of sealed boxes in its warehouses.

But, as fighting intensified between different factions, Ma was arrested by his staff and imprisoned in a store room for nine months. He was tortured by being repeatedly dropped on the marble floor, in an attempt to make him admit that he'd sold museum property for personal gain. His arm was broken; several of his colleagues who were also arrested died during the interrogations.

Finally, he was sent to a 'cadre school' for 're-education'. He was allowed back to Shanghai in 1972 to organise an exhibition to tour the US, after the visit of then US president Richard Nixon to China.

To his family, he rarely spoke of what he'd suffered during this time.

Thanks to the efforts of Ma and his colleagues, most of the exhibits in the museum were saved from the Red Guards.

After the Cultural Revolution, families were able to reclaim their treasures but some went back to the museum through sale or donation.

The opening up of China from the 1980s posed a new threat, as thousands of items dug upacross the country were sold to auction houses and private collectors in Hong Kong. So Ma persuaded the city government and the overseas donors to increase the budget for acquisitions, to buy back some of the pieces.

'Building a collection requires tact and patience,' he said. 'As a city developed relatively late in Chinese history, Shanghai does not have a large base of locally excavated ancient treasures. Our museum is built on donations and purchases.'