Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 4: Explorers

by Xujun Eberlein

(continued from 1. Prologue, 2. Evolution, and 3. Puzzle)

Sun Danian is very frustrated that no one dares to publish her new book, Exploring SACO, 160,000 words resulting from nearly 20 years of painstaking exertion.

The publishers she contacted all showed strong interest initially. Then the manuscript was either killed in an in-house censoring process or, after it passed the first checkpoint and was sent to the government's Administration of Press and Publication for its imprimatur, disappeared like a "clay kettle falling into the sea."

observatory.JPGLeft: SACO's meteorological headquarters (2009)

Sun has published three nonfiction books before. One of her previous publishers was excited to hear about Exploring SACO.  "Is the book about SACO fighting the Japanese or killing Communists?" the publisher asked. Sun Dannian told him it's the former. "Then I can sell 5000 copies right away!" the man exclaimed. After thinking through the hassle of the censoring process, however, he reluctantly gave up, and referred her to another publisher. The other publisher was equally interested, and took it one step further, submitting the manuscript to the censor. That was nearly a year ago.  Sun called recently and the answer was "no news." The No's she received from other places were without explanation.

I recently read an excerpt from her manuscript, which starts with her personal journey.  She is a vivid writer, and the writing is very readable. The reason for her rejections might be that the propaganda authorities are not ready to let the public see a dramatically different image of SACO, despite the conclusions long accepted in academic circles. I say "the propaganda authorities," because bureaucrats in those departments often make up rules far more rigid than the central government's policy. There is a Chinese saying, "The emperor isn't worried; worried are the eunuchs."

Articles countering the "SACO concentration camp" image have been published in various magazines for the past three decades.  The earliest one I'm aware of dates back to 1988. In the Fall 1988 issue of American Studies, a quarterly at Beijing's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, is an article titled (in translation) "What SACO Really Was," written by Deng Youping. A Chongqing man born in 1956, Deng Youping was a staff member at the "SACO: Crimes of America and Chiang" museum from 1978 to 1991. His position allowed him access to old prison archives not open to the public, and his arguments are supported by solid data.
Deng's article established that, during SACO's time from April 1943 to May 1946, Bai Mansion was not used as a prison. It was originally a warlord's villa; in 1939 Dai Li changed it into a detention house under his secret police (Juntong). Upon SACO's establishment in spring 1943, to accommodate American personnel, Dai Li converted Bai Mansion into a guesthouse, called the "third guesthouse of SACO."  It resumed its prison function in late 1946, after SACO's closure.

Though Deng did not paint as clear a historical picture for Refuse Pit, he provided a long list of names of the political prisoners killed in both prisons from 1939 to 1949, together with their jail time. A pattern became clear from the list that the prisoners were there either before 1943 (fewer than 20) or after July 1946 (hundreds).  None were present during SACO's active time from April 1943 to May 1946.  Thus Deng's article effectively cleared SACO's notorious name as a "concentration camp."

In late 2008, I was made aware of Deng's article by historian He Shu, who has repeatedly quoted it in his own writing. I tracked down Deng Youping in February 2009, and met him in his current office at the Three Gorges Museum in downtown Chongqing. He told me one of the things that motivated him to dig into the locked archives was an American visitor's question: "Do the accusations against SACO have a basis?"
Deng regretted that he was unable to include SACO's contribution to fighting Japan: "My paper wouldn't have gotten published if I said that then."

What Deng wrote was actually quite subversive, yet the article did not make much splash.  The journal's narrow academic readership was certainly one reason, the public's readiness for that kind of analysis might be another. The timing, 1988, seemed a bit too soon for it. It did not even attract much attention from Deng's colleagues, among them Sun Danian, who joined the SACO museum in 1990 and her exploration now goes a lot deeper than Deng's.  Yesterday I spoke with her on the phone; she had a vague recollection of seeing Deng's article in the early 1990s, but its content did not stick.  "Maybe because I'm a sensory learner," she said. She also had a different mindset at the time.

Sun Dannian is a Chongqing native.  She was twelve when she first visited the SACO exhibition in 1963.  She was in the 4th grade; her teacher brought the entire class there. "I wrote a composition after the visit, my words trembling with emotion," she recalls in her book's prologue, "and I wasn't the only one. Many of us were like that - deeply moved."  That first impression lasted for 27 years.  In 1990, after an eight-year stint in Tibet as an art-and-literature teacher, she found a job back home as a staff member at the "Gele Mountain Revolution Memorial Museum," previously the SACO exhibition. She was more than pleased. For the first two or three months at her new job, she spent most of her spare time exploring every corner of this "cultural relic protection zone," an area of a little over two square kilometers.

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James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

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