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.
"I deeply hope that people can face this period of history squarely and let people in China and the rest of the world see how China lived through this period of its history, and that they never will do anything so stupid again," he said.
Despite official nervousness over the museum, Peng said he had no desire to combat the Communist Party, which he served throughout a long career in the Shantou municipal government. "I don't want to undermine the party's credibility," he said before hanging up. "I just want to remind people that there is a better way to develop."
Peng used his experience as a city official to get public funding and business donations so the museum could be built. A temple-like, circular building surrounded by small monuments, commemorative steles and inscribed tombstones, the museum was constructed in the lush green hills of the Tashan Scenic Area, about 15 miles northeast of Shantou.
The central building is filled with hundreds of photos and drawings depicting events of the Cultural Revolution. Mao has been granted a place of prominence. So has Jiang Qing, a former actress and Mao's wife, who was a Gang of Four member until she and the other three were arrested in 1976 and put on trial.
But ordinary citizens also have their place. There are the Tsinghua University students photographed smiling and clapping as "capitalist roaders" are denounced at a political meeting during the 1960s. And there is the evocative portrait of Cheng Zhuoru, who headed the Shanghai Music Conservatory until she and her husband committed suicide because, according to an inscription, "they could no longer bear the humiliation and torture."
The granite slab that greets visitors heading for the main building has been inscribed with the official party verdict on the tumultuous period, handed down well after it ended: "History has clearly decided," it reads. "The Great Cultural Revolution was a mistake, put in motion by leaders, used by counterrevolutionary groups for their interests, causing turmoil that brought a serious disaster to the party, the country and the people."
Since it opened three months ago, a caretaker said, the museum has received about 100 visitors a day during the week and several hundred on weekends and holidays. The park where it stands, which also includes a lake and pagodas with a view of the city, has long welcomed several hundred thousand visitors a year.
Aside from schoolchildren escorted by their teachers, a caretaker said, most visitors have been middle-age Chinese eager to see a piece of their past. One, who signed himself "Wang Ping, a former Beijing Red Guard," wrote in a visitors' log that the museum offers Chinese a chance to embrace the bad parts of their history as well as the good.
"The Chinese people should take responsibility for their history, not only remember the glorious achievements, but also examine the shame," he wrote.
The visiting army officer, who declined to give his name because of the sensitivity surrounding the museum, said he had returned several times, bringing friends who, he said, deserved to know what happened when they were small children.
"We should get a clear picture of our history," said the officer, 56. "We must tell the next generation."
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.