Why a former Red Guard now saves Chinese antiques and uses his collection to educate young people
Wu Jianguo hopes his collection of some 15,000 antiques, housed in a private museum in his rural hometown, will help his countrymen deal with their confusion over China’s past
When Chairman Mao’s Red Guards embarked on their mission to eradicate any sign of China’s feudal past, an untold number of ancient texts, relics, religious sites and citizens’ private belongings were targeted for destruction.
For Wu Jianguo, a former Red Guard from the poor farming village of Lijia Shizi, 90 kilometres from downtown Xian, in northwest China, there was nothing to destroy.
“You hear or read about Red Guards destroying national treasures, but that never happened in our place. Farmers are the poorest people. They had nothing valuable in their homes. They didn’t even have anything to eat,” he says.
Ironically, Lijia Shizi now has a collection of about 15,000 antiques brought together over the years by Wu and housed in a private museum he established. It is a situation that Wu could at one time never have imagined.
Wu was born in 1950 to a poor peasant family in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, a year after Mao Zedong’s communists took power in China. Like many of his generation, he took the given name Jianguo, meaning “to build the country”.
His mother, orphaned at the age of nine, had escaped from a marriage to an opium addict. With few future prospects, she married Wu’s impoverished father.
“I remember being young and holding a cup to collect the water to stop it from seeping in when it rained,” Wu says. Their simple home had just a curtain of straw for a door and no glass in the windows.
The fortunes of Wu’s family began to change under the communists. With their impeccable proletarian roots, his father became head of the village and his mother a representative of Hua county for the National People’s Congress.
“Since we were very poor we naturally became the power of the revolution,” Wu says.
He was enrolled in school in 1958 and recalls how pupils were taught to love the Communist Party, socialism and Chairman Mao.
“We sang The East is Red every day and believed that the saving star was Chairman Mao. When we heard that some people were against him, we students rose up to save Chairman Mao,” says Wu as he recalls the lead-up to the Cultural Revolution, which broke out in 1966, a year after he entered high school.
The destruction began with book burning. State newspapers would report on the books that should be targeted for criticism, and the students would respond by going to the library to burn them, so marking the rise of the Red Guards. Wu recalls his school having a well-stocked library and how they destroyed books about feudalism, capitalism and Russian socialism.
Wu became a prominent member of the local Red Guard, and was chosen as one of 10 representatives of the county to be sent to Beijing in 1966.
“One of the main responsibilities of the Red Guard was to promote Mao’s ideas. We went to factories to sing revolutionary songs. We had another activity … to read Mao’s book, listen to Mao’s words and be Mao’s good soldiers,” Wu says. He would also read the writings of Mao to the illiterate and teach them to recite passages.
In 1976, when Mao died and the Cultural Revolution was reined in, Wu’s life took another turn when he was ordered by party officials to go to the Guangdong Foreign Language University to study French.
“They came three times. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a worker, and I didn’t want to study French because France was a capitalist country,” Wu says.
He eventually succumbed to the pressure. When he later returned to Xian he became a tour guide for groups from France and Belgium. It was by meeting these foreign visitors that he learned to value the history the Red Guard had sought to obliterate – though it was initially a difficult concept to grasp.
“I didn’t really understand them. They wanted to see the old streets. Like most other Chinese I thought that these were poor and dirty, and I wanted to show them the big avenues and buildings,” Wu says. Even when they explained how France also had large boulevards and buildings, and they wanted to experience the old culture and history, Wu struggled to understand.
The penny dropped for Wu during a bicycle ride in 1991 in Xian, where whole blocks of buildings were being razed. He and his wife passed a number of elderly people selling antiques on the streets to raise money for modern appliances.
“I saw this old window [frame] and realised it was actually quite beautiful. As I was from the countryside I had never seen something so beautiful before, but they no longer wanted it,” Wu says.
The couple bought the decorative frame for three yuan. Returning the next day they bought a stone sculpture for five yuan. At the time, Wu was earning a salary of about 40 yuan a month, and an extra 1.5 yuan a day when he led tours. He would also get tips from the tourists.
On one tour to see Xian’s famed terracotta warriors with a French antique collector, they passed a stall where what looked like a very old vase was being sold for one yuan and a bronze Buddha for 15 yuan.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘Monsieur Wu, if you buy a television set it will be worth less and less with time because it is made by machine, whereas these things are handmade and going to be worth more over time. So by the time you’re my age you’ll be richer than me if you start to buy these things now,’” Wu recalls.
This proved fortuitous advice for Wu, who has since gone on to build the massive collection of antiques he keeps at his private museum – a three-storey house he originally built for his parents in 1983. Building the house was his first dream, and his second was to have a garden.
“To have a garden you need a mountain, river and money, but I am a modest man so there is no mountain or river. That’s why I call this place Fei Yuan [Non-Garden],” Wu says with a laugh, explaining how his museum got its name. Today, the garden is filled with stone gateways and statues salvaged from houses that have been demolished in Xian.
Wu would watch the demolition going on in Xian while showing tour groups around, and return in the evening to acquire unwanted artefacts. He became so recognisable among demolition workers that they began to contact him when new opportunities to buy antiques arose.
Among his eclectic, meticulously catalogued collection are relics including a Stone Age axe, but also more recent items such as Mao memorabilia and ’80s-era television sets. He also has vintage furniture that was sold off cheaply by families in the 1990s when they were moving from houses to modern high-rise apartments.
“I chose here [Lijia Shizi] because this is where I’m from and I still have the mindset of a farmer. I bought all these things that were new and beautiful to me, and brought them here to share with my neighbours, who had never seen such things. I’m trying to spread antique culture so that young people can now enjoy it,” he says.
Now busy caring for a grandson in downtown Xian, Wu only opens Fei Yuan for the occasional school group or tours arranged by the Xian Insiders group.
For a long time he was worried about the future of his collection. When his son married, his daughter-in-law’s family saw it and assumed the Wus were rich. “Having this is not being rich. It is a lot of responsibility,” Wu says.
He had considered donating his collection to the local government, but they, too, seemed mainly interested in its monetary value. Luckily his granddaughter loves the museum and he hopes she will one day secure its future.
A few years ago Wu spoke at a conference in Beijing and summarised the experiences of people his age.
“In the first phase we were very enthusiastic about the Communist Party and Chairman Mao – we just believed in that. In the second phase came modernity and we were all about just making money. Today everyone is confused. We don’t know what to believe any more. What we need is to keep a Confucian mindset to maintain a love of our country and keep our cultural heritage.”