Monday, December 12, 2011

Cultural Revolution memories under threat

SHANTOU (Guangdong): After a night of rain, a light mist hangs over the green slopes of Mount Ta, shrouding the quiet hills with a cloak of mystique and secrecy that it could probably do without.
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief

A pagoda stands near the summit, flanked by a circular temple-like building and inscribed tombstones, silent amid the wild banana trees.

The mountain shares the isolation and serenity of a Taoist enclave, but has neither the harmony nor the balance of the ancient Chinese way.


Torture and shaming methods

New corpse bride

After beating and killing a man and a woman, the naked male corpse is placed on top of the female body to simulate sexual intercourse. The pair may not necessarily be married or related.

Plucking pubic hair

The victim is stripped naked and bound, and tormentors aggressively pull out his pubic hair by hand. It is designed to humiliate.

Begging for forgiveness

The victim is made to kneel for long periods in front of Chairman Mao Zedong's statue to ask for forgiveness. He is beaten mercilessly if he makes the slightest movement.

Stone on corpse

Even after being beaten to death, the victim is not left alone. A giant stone is placed on his body so that even in the afterlife, he will not be able to flip around and start anew.


As home to China's only Cultural Revolution museum, the desolate hills make for a depressing time capsule for one of the country's most painful tragedies - way too much yin rather than yang; more negative than positive.

Its grief goes beyond the gruesome memories it exhibits. The six-year-old museum, which is almost an hour's drive from the heart of Teochew port city Shantou - more familiar to Singaporeans as 'Swatow' - has been facing official pressure to shut down.

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been happily encouraging the people to sing revolutionary 'red songs' of the Maoist era, it wants few public reminders of the uglier works from those times.

'A lot of people want to snuff out our tiny flame,' said museum co-founder Peng Qi'an, on the 35th anniversary of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged chaos under the guise of class struggle, killing millions in the pro-cess.

The museum was built without official approval and support, the result of a brave project on a taboo subject.

Mr Peng, who is now 80 and a former vice-mayor of Shantou, has with some like-minded friends been gathering private donations since 1997, including 300,000 yuan (S$60,000) from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who hails from Shantou.

'He would like to give more, but this is very politically sensitive,' said Mr Peng of the high-profile donor.

In 2009, the museum was forced to shut down for more than a month, and officials posted four guards at its doors to turn visitors away. It is believed that the nervousness was tied to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

Guangdong authorities also muzzle Mr Peng every now and then, banning him from speaking to foreign media.

Cultural Revolution historian Yin Hongbiao from Peking University explained: 'The CCP has decided to 'cold storage' the topic because if people keep talking about how bad it was, it will affect how they view Mao and the party.'

Most of the time, the CCP chooses to simply ignore the museum.

'They could support us, punish us or just pretend we do not exist. But the party has already said the Cultural Revolution is wrong. So if they punish us, it would be like punching themselves,' Mr Peng explained.

'Yet, they do not want to support us. So they choose to ignore.'

All domestic Chinese media has been banned from reporting on the museum, and there are no road signs directing visitors.

'Even some locals do not know there is this museum here,' he said.

What they miss is an impressive display spread across the hills of Mount Ta, capturing the Cultural Revolution's crude violence.

The indoor section of the museum contains about 1,100 photographs chiselled into granite slabs, including images of Mao inspecting the Red Guards, as well as sessions where victims were tortured and humiliated.

Outside the museum stands a giant sculpture of a pen and an open book, a reminder that history of the turmoil has to be recorded.

Curators also etched on stone the 304 labels used to insult class enemies, like 'dog-head advisers' and 'cow'; the 48 political campaigns the CCP waged since taking power in 1949; and the torture methods used during the Cultural Revolution.

A rare giant statue of former CCP leader Liu Shaoqi, who was Mao's main target during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison, marks the spot where annual memorial services take place.

Mr Peng, a Communist Party member, insists the museum is not meant to challenge the CCP's authority. He and his friends merely want China to remember its mistakes and not repeat such tragedies.

The tragedy left him with lifelong personal scars. A brother was tortured to death, while Mr Peng himself was locked up for years before he was placed second on a list of officials to be executed by a firing squad.

He was removed from the list at the last minute - for reasons he has yet to find out - but the trauma from those years left him determined to ensure China never forgets the tragic decade.

He decided to house the museum in Shantou's Chenghai district, where Mount Ta is, because the area saw particularly vicious and bloody struggles during the Cultural Revolution, with more than 400 dead. Some are buried in mass graves in the hills.

Their remains, and the museum, may not be taken care of for much longer.

Said Professor Yin: 'The museum would struggle to find successors. Young Chinese don't know much about the Cultural Revolution and so are not interested. Even here in Peking University, I've found that the students do not know more than foreigners.'

Such succession problems worry Mr Peng.

'No local officials dare to take over this place. No one wants to help out. We struggle for funding and information gathering,' he said.

'The Communist Party is supporting the singing of old red songs, but it wants people to forget the past. Is it possible? I don't think so.'