Chinese Museum Looks Back in Candor

Visitors to the new museum near Shantou view the granite slab bearing images of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping at the entrance.
Visitors to the new museum near Shantou view the granite slab bearing images of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping at the entrance. "History has clearly decided," an inscription reads. "The Great Cultural Revolution was a mistake." (By Zhang Jing For The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 3, 2005

SHANTOU, China -- Etched on the right of a large granite slab at the entrance to a museum here is an oversize figure of Chairman Mao, his hand reaching out to bless a youthful mob screaming and waving his Little Red Book in a classic scene from China's Cultural Revolution.

On the left is Deng Xiaoping, smiling serenely in a chiseled tableau of happy workers enjoying the market reforms that have transported China into a new era and relegated the political upheaval inspired by Mao Zedong to the history books.

The newly opened museum has raised the question of whether China's rulers are ready at last to confront that history -- a period of ideological frenzy that erupted with official encouragement in 1966 and ended a decade later with millions of lives shattered.

Although President Hu Jintao and his government have repeatedly demanded that Japan more forthrightly acknowledge its history of atrocities during World War II, China has often found it difficult to deal with the dark side of its own past, including the Cultural Revolution. The museum in Shantou, on the South China Sea 200 miles northeast of Hong Kong, is the first such exhibit to open, 29 years after the turmoil subsided, and authorities swiftly made it clear that open discussion of the issues it raises is still not on the official agenda.

After several Chinese newspapers published stories about the new museum and its founder, Peng Qian, a former Shantou deputy mayor, Guangdong province censors ordered a halt to all such publicity, according to Chinese journalists. Peng, 74 and retired, said he was also told to stop talking about his project and why he believed it was healthy for Chinese people to learn about what happened in those turbulent years.

"The higher authorities got in touch," Peng said in a brief telephone conversation, explaining why he could not grant an interview. "I am waiting for things to clear up."

Throughout China, Communist Party officials and ordinary people have long been reluctant to talk frankly about the Cultural Revolution. Mao badges have become sought-after tourist kitsch, but scholarly study of one of Chinese history's most significant episodes has been officially circumscribed. Most parents have avoided the subject with their children, and young people seem to have little idea of the suffering endured by their parents in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

A military officer who was visiting the Great Cultural Revolution Museum recalled with a smile that he and his preteen comrades used to stop peasants walking down the lanes of his home village and demand that they recite verses from the Little Red Book. If the farmers were illiterate, he explained, the children would make them memorize a few lines before allowing them to continue on their way.

Jin Fang, a friend of the officer's and a member of the Shantou Song and Dance Ensemble, said she got her start as a performer when, as a child, she was lifted onto a table and made to chant Mao's revolutionary poems. With little prodding, she launched laughingly into a verse she still remembers about the evils of capitalism.

At higher levels of China's officialdom, who did what during the Cultural Revolution has long been a more serious matter. Many among China's leaders suffered at the hands of young, rampaging Red Guards. Deng, for example, was eclipsed, returning to power only after Mao died and the army stepped in to restore order. But many others joined the revolutionary brigades, participating in excesses they would not now be eager to discuss publicly.

In a recent demonstration of how sensitive the subject remains, party authorities waited nearly three weeks to announce the death on April 21 of Zhang Chunqiao, one of the Gang of Four who pushed the Cultural Revolution to its most violent extremes and later were denounced as a "counterrevolutionary clique."

Peng experienced the period in a personal way. During bloody clashes that pitted one revolutionary faction against another in the Shantou region, his name was placed on a list of officials to be killed. At the last minute, he was removed from the list, he recalled, but the episode left him with a lifelong interest in the Cultural Revolution and the devastation it caused.

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