Cemetery a constant reminder of China's Cultural Revolution
CHONGQING, CHINA - At a lakeside park, tucked in the shadows between trees and bushes, is a cemetery with a story many in China would like to forget.
Hidden behind high walls and locked iron gates are tombs for Red Guards killed during the dark days of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, a ruthless attempt to reinforce Communist Party ideology. As with everything to do with Mao, the graveyard occupies an uneasy space in Chinese history.
When China's top leaders observed the 61st anniversary of the founding of Communist China recently with a flower-laying ceremony at the Monument to the People's Heroes in Beijing, they did so quietly, without the speeches extolling Mao that once marked all such events.
It was another sign that the country is caught between competing narratives about the legacy of the Communist Party patriarch.
His revolutionary triumphs are inscribed on monuments across the country, and his face is stamped on paper currency. A portrait of the "Great Leader" dominates the gates of the Forbidden City, where emperors once lived, and his mausoleum is across the street in Tiananmen Square.
On the other hand, few Chinese are eager to discuss the havoc and death that came with Mao's ideological adventures. Although the Chinese government in 1981 admitted Mao's role in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution - which together with his earlier Great Leap Forward initiative led to millions of deaths - it also stated that the Chinese should continue to uphold "Mao Zedong thought."
The underlying message then, as now: Officials have no interest in judging too closely the man who in large part built the Chinese Communist Party.
About 900 miles southwest of the capital, though, the Chongqing cemetery is a reminder of what happened in the years that politicians prefer to leave blank.
The 130 or so tombstones - many marking multiple burials - evoke guilt and sorrow for those who survived, according to ordinary Chinese milling around the paths near the graveyard.
"Those people should not have died, but they had too much belief in Old Man Mao," said Li Xingxiu, 68, her eyes filled with sadness. "Me, personally, I also believed him too much. . . . That time made a mess of peoples' lives."
In 1967 and 1968, fighting between Red Guard factions - youth groups at the head of Mao's efforts to wipe out "counterrevolutionary" elements - in the city was particularly violent as militants seized tanks and flamethrowers from munitions factories. In Chongqing, many still remember the chaos.
"Was I here at the time? I joined the Red Guards. I was on the side of the revolution - I was for Chairman Mao," said a retired factory worker.
Pushed for detail, he looked nervous.
"Back then, it was correct. Everyone had to follow Mao," said the man, who didn't want his name published.
State media announced this year that the Chongqing graveyard had become the first Cultural Revolution site in China to be preserved under government order. But the cemetery will be closed to the public for most of the year.
"It has historical value, but we should wait for a while before opening it, until the people who participated in that event [the Cultural Revolution] have passed away," said Pu Yongjian, a professor of tourism management at Chongqing University. "Many years from now, another generation will be able to view this period of history fairly."
Because students in China are given a sanitized account of Mao's life and unauthorized texts are blocked, it remains unclear to what extent future generations will be able to consider the subject.
"For young people, we have a general idea about it," said Xiao Zhiqiang, a 35-year-old factory manager in Chongqing. And what do the legacies of Mao and the Cultural Revolution mean for today's China? "I have no idea," Xiao said.
Sitting with a group of friends at the park, Xie Xueru, a former cadre in the local government's agricultural department, said he doesn't like the cemetery.
"I don't think it's necessary for this graveyard to be here. It reminds us of the Cultural Revolution," Xie said.
He considered the matter for another moment before speaking again. "They died innocently and should not be blamed," said Xie, 65. "But they deserved to die. They put too much trust in a 'holy person.' "
Having said as much, Xie looked around and seemed unsure of what to say next. Then it came: "That 'holy person' was Mao Zedong."