China's first Cultural Revolution museum exposes Mao's war on 'bourgeois culture'

The frightened figure in the picture is a Chinese opera star. His hair is grasped tightly in a Red Guard's fist and he is being denounced during the Cultural Revolution, the ideological frenzy which destroyed millions of lives in China between 1966 and 1976.

The image is one of hundreds of engravings on cold grey tablets that make up the exhibits in China's first Cultural Revolution museum, near the industrial port city of Shantou in the Guangdong district.

"There is Chinese proverb which says you should use history as a mirror," Peng Qian, a former deputy mayor of Shantou, said. Mr Peng, who was himself persecuted by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, was the main driving force in setting up the museum last year.

"The message is that history is a warning to us not to make the same mistake twice. We don't want to go back down that same path. We're getting about 1,000 visitors a day at this museum and it's extremely important in education terms, inspiring in fact," Mr Peng said.

The Cultural Revolution was one of the darkest periods of recent Chinese history. Forty years ago this year, Chairman Mao Zedong's Communist Party ordered a return to ideological roots, which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and many more lives destroyed over 10 years.

It remains a deeply divisive issue in China. In 1999, Song Yongyi, a US-based academic, was arrested while carrying out research on the Cultural Revolution and charged with stealing state secrets. He was released a year later after an international outcry.

The Communist Party still does not accept responsibility for what happened during the revolution, and the museum in Shantou's Chenghai district was built without official backing.

The museum is housed in a classical Pagoda-style building situated in the lush greenery of the Tashan forest area, 15 miles away from Shantou.

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution, but there has never been a proper assessment of what happened during the period, and children are taught little about it in school. Their parents are unlikely to tell them what they went through.

A quote from the party's Central Committee, reprinted at the museum, acknowledges only that errors were made. "History has judged the Cultural Revolution as a mistake by the Leaders that brought great disaster to party, nation and people," it says.

The hundreds of engravings in the museum come from a 1995 book called Cultural Revolution Museum, published by Yang Kelin in Hong Kong.

There are shocking images of teachers and intellectuals in dunce hats being led out by farmers, of children and their dead parents and of zealots attaching revolutionary messages to large Buddha statues.

In one picture, Red Guards surround a disgraced official, while in another a "rightist" is being carried out in a basket, having suffered a beating.

Another chilling sight is a picture of Shang Guanyunzhu, a Shanghai actress who is believed to have had an affair with Mao. She committed suicide by jumping out of a window to escape the hectoring by Red Guards.

A tablet further along the wall shows a large demonstration in Beijing in 1966, when millions of young people waved their "Little Red Books" of Mao's thoughts.

The Cultural Revolution declared war on "bourgeois culture", and there were a lot of casualties among the musicians and artists of China. There are depictions of the taunting of professors at the Shanghai Music Conservatory. Seventeen professors, spouses and students from the music college committed suicide, while many others were imprisoned in work camps.

Another panel shows the arrest and public humiliation of China's state president, Liu Shaoqi, denounced as a "capitalist roader" and badly beaten before dying in custody.

Mao, the man they used to call The Great Helmsman, is the central figure of the exhibition.

One panel shows him swimming in the Yangtze River in 1966, a display of the 72-year-old leader's health and vigour as he geared up to reassume command of the country. This type of propaganda heralded the era during which hundreds of thousands of people died.

"Under heaven, all is chaos," Mao wrote famously of the Cultural Revolution's excesses.

As the exhibition progresses, Mao is shown in a state of creeping decrepitude in the years between 1966 and his death in 1976, as his bulk increases dramatically.

The official Communist Party line is that Mao was 70 per cent good and 30 per cent bad, but a succession of biographies of Mao have painted a different picture, culminating in the damning recent biography of Mao by Jung Chang, the author of Wild Swans, and Jon Halliday, which will not be published in China.

However, Mao's face still stares out prominently across Tiananmen Square from the Forbidden City, at the heart of the capital, Beijing. He also features on many of the country's banknotes.

Many senior leaders in the Communist Party also suffered during the Cultural Revolution, including the man referred to as the architect of China's modern policy of opening up to the world, Deng Xiaoping. There is a statue to him outside the museum.

The spiritual father of the museum is Ren Zhongyi, a senior official who was formerly the party secretary of Guangdong. Ren died in November last year.

There is a quote from Ren on the outside of the building: "With history as a mirror, under no circumstances must we allow the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution to be repeated."

Another driving force behind the museum is Ba Jin, one of the most important Chinese authors of modern times, who also died late last year. "Every town in China should establish a museum about the Cultural Revolution," the author said.

Perhaps the museum's most surprising benefactor is the Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man, who comes from Shantou. He donated about £20,000 towards the cost of the project.

The museum's caretaker, Du Mubo, said the museum is proving to be popular. "China's very different now and we get all kinds of visitors," Mr Du said.

One visitor, who asked not to be named, said she was born in 1966 and was too small to know what was going on. "But this museum is very meaningful. We need more places like this so Chinese people can know our country's history," she said.

China | Society | 2006-02-21 |