Private views of Chinese history

Recently I went to the Jianchuan museums, which are in Anren, just outside Chengdu. It is an interesting place first because it is huge, financed by mogul Fan Jianchuan, and second because it is a private museum, something not very common in China.

The place is covers a lot of ground, and there are, or soon will be buildings showcasing West Sichuan folk customs, footbinding, traditional houses, and the response to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. They are already working on the building for the last of these, and some of the artifacts are sitting outside.

The biggest and most interesting sections are on the War with Japan and the Red Years.

The War buildings (there are several) are strongly nationalistic (it is glorious to die for the homeland, etc) and pretty popular with the Chinese visitors. The war also gets some of the most striking installations, including a display of the handprints of 300 veterans and statues of 200 heroes of the war (mostly generals and commanders of various sorts.)

Both of them sort of reminded me of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, in that they rely on the effect of masses of individuals (each of the handprints and statues has an inscription telling you who it is.) The statues also remind me somewhat of Qin Shihuang’s terracotta warriors, although having been given names and not being in such strict ranks they are more individualized.1

The interpretation of the war focuses primarily on heroism and sacrifice. There is not much interpretation of how the war progressed or what happened in it, just endless scenes of sacrifice and combat. There is a whole building on the Nationalist armies, which is unusual, and they are credited with having killed a million Japanese while suffering over three million casualties. American aid and the Flying Tigers also get a building, and their contributions are listed.

The museums in general are not overflowing with artifacts, although they do have a few.

Mostly they rely on pictures, like this one of an ambulance team of monks

Or this injured boyscout.

There are a lot of pictures blown up on the walls with a 3-D element, like this

There are also a number of somewhat interactive exhibits, like a tunnel for tunnel warfare, and the Flying Tiger bar where you can have a beer and feel just like an American. (I passed.)

The Red Years section has some installations

but mostly it focuses on what life was like in the Mao years, emphasizing both the idealism and the over-politicization of the period. So we get things like a bedstead that greets you with Mao quotes when you wake up,

and a piano which defends itself from charges of being bourgeois by proclaiming that art must serve the workers, peasants and soldiers.

The exhibits are about as critical of the Mao years as I have ever seen in China, although not of Mao personally. The porcelain exhibit explicitly criticizes the politicization of teacups, emphasizes the continuing class nature (and poverty) of Maoist society by explaining which classes of people could afford what, and compares having an image of Mao in your house was like having a Bodhisattva around in the old society.

As close as you get to really explicit criticism is the hallway where you exit the Daily Life building, were you walk over a list of the years of the Cultural Revolution as slogans are shouted overhead.

The museums take on the Mao years is a little on the schizophrenic side. The texts keep emphasizing the contradiction between idealism and chaos, and there is a picture of Fan Jinchuan himself in Inner Mongolia striking his best Lei Feng pose. What might strike the young people coming to look at it most is the poverty of the old society.

I suspect the place is going to become more political, as they are currently working on buildings on the Great Leap and China’s Famine. I can’t imagine how you could deal with those without some fairly explicit criticism. The place is well worth seeing. Most Chinese historic sites focus on a fairly abstract traditional period or the straight revolutionary narrative. This is one that goes a good deal further.


  1. Also, like Qin Shihuang himself, they are on top of a relief map of China. 

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