In this photo essay, I’m concerned with the kinds of teaching and learning that go on at the thousands of public memorial sites around the PRC. Unfortunately I seem to have misplaced some of the photos from my visits to these places, although at some of them, taking pictures was obviously out of order (e.g., the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum). Of those that I’ve retained, I’ve decided to stick to sites related to the Revolutionary War that I think are worth considering. I hope you enjoy them.
The photos were taken at four different locations. Three of these are considered “holy” sites of the Communist Revolution: Zunyi, Guizhou, site of the famed “Zunyi Meeting (or Conference)” (1935) which saw Mao take formal control during the Long March; Yan’an, Shaanxi, an equally famous site where the Chinese Communist Party made its base beginning in 1935 (after the Long March); and the lesser known Xibaipo, Hebei, where the CCP made its headquarters just prior (1948) to victory in the Revolutionary War. The fourth location is The Revolutionary Martyrs’ Mausoleum in Shijiazhuang, Hebei. While obviously connected to the Revolutionary War, it has a slightly different theme than the others.
The three holy sites are pretty straight forward memorials of the Revolutionary War. Zunyi and Xibaipo are museum like sites, but do include many artifacts from weapons to bowls of millet to photographs. Yan’an is much the same, except for the very unusual opportunities to play “revolutionary” by donning PLA garb and spinning cotton or carrying water with a shoulder pole. I’ll never forget stepping around a corner from taking the photo and catching sight of an actual, modern-day peasant labourer using just such a shoulder pole. Apparently the cycle of revolution/counter-revolution has had a greater effect on the material circumstances of some more than others. Still, much care is taken to preserve these sites, important as they are to the memory of the bitter struggle of the revolution and, of course, to the pedagogy of legitimation of the CCP as China’s guide to the future.
As I suggest above, Shijiazhuang’s Revolutionary Martyrs’ Museum provides a bit of contrast. It memorializes the dead of the Revolutionary War (there are actual graves at the rear of the park) and specifically honours the the service of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, who is still remembered by most Chinese, singled out as he was for praise by Chairman Mao. Also remembered for his service is Indian doctor Dwarkanath Kotnis. The memorial, in other words, celebrates the spirit of socialist internationalism embodied in the contributions of these two non-Chinese and others.
One of the things that I find interesting about these sites is that while they are fairly typical in their glorification of the spirit of sacrifice, and, of course, of the victorious party, they seem to me (especially the Shijiazhuang site) not to be concerned with glorification of war itself. Also, while China and the CCP have lapsed into a kind of economistic exceptionalism in the past three decades, one still sees traces of the spirit of internationalism that was central to the Revolution prior to 1978.
For those planning to visit China or for those who are already living there, I’d suggest a visit to these places is well worth your time. They offer a different and important insight into Chinese history, and are a welcome antidote to the kind of “ancientism” that prevails on the Beijing-Xi’an tourist path.