Another Kind of American History in Chongqing, 5: Revision

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by Xujun Eberlein

(Continued from 1. Prologue, 2. Evolution, 3. Puzzle, and 4. Explorers)

Li Hua has been the director of the SACO museum for 25 years. He has published many books about SACO, Red Crag, and the prisons. Before I finally met him in person in February 2009, all his books I had seen fiercely denounced SACO the "concentration camp," even though he knew very well the contradictory research results from his own staff members.

Xi 1.jpg(Left: at one of the prison sites, in mid-morning, a traffic sensor shows "1702 visitors" so far that day (2009))

Back in 2008, I was enticed to confront Li Hua about those contradictory research results, to hear his side of the story. I asked a Chongqing friend whether he knew how to get hold of him. The friend said, "What's the point? He is a party hack, he won't say anything true." Others told me there was no way I would be able to see him, "He's a big busy man!"

I visited Chongqing again in February 2009. A childhood friend of mine thought he could help make an appointment for me because he knew a family member of Li Hua's. The friend was so sure about his backdoor. The next day, he called to say "sorry" -- Li Hua rejected the request right away.

A few days after that, an American writer friend Lisa Brackmann (btw, she has an awesome thriller set in China) came to Chongqing and we went to the Red Crag Village together. This is a separate but related museum, about 10 miles from the SACO site. Li Hua is also the director of this one and his main office is there.

In the afternoon, when Lisa and I were about to leave, we passed by the path leading to Li Hua's office. I decided to try my luck. Figuring that Li Hua was probably a man who cared about his international face and thus would be more willing to meet a foreigner, I urged Lisa to go with me, giving her a brief explanation of my purpose. Lisa, being a kind friend, complied. On the way up the path we were stopped three times, first by a woman sweeping the ground, then a man, finally a secretary of Li Hua's. Each asked if we had an appointment, and each time I said yes. In the courtyard of a two-story building, the secretary asked us to wait downstairs while she went up to check with her boss. A minute or two later we were brought in, pretty much as I expected. (I want to apologize to Lisa again for using her like that, but her foreigner face apparently worked.)

Li Hua was a sturdy man with a chubby rough face, in his mid-50s, dressed in a blue jacket and jeans. He sat on an expensive-looking mahogany chair, and two attractive young women waited at his sides. A plaque of "The Li Family Troupe" hung on the wall - in previous generations his family had run a famous Sichuan-opera troupe.

He put a cigarette between his lips, and one of the young women leaned over to light it for him. His secretary brought us tea. I talked with Li Hua in Chinese while Lisa listened. Hearing that we were writers interested in SACO's history, he pulled out his new book from the shelf behind him, gave us each a copy - very generous of him. I glanced at the book title: Decoding the Red Crag Archives.

Now, here came the surprise. I asked Li Hua about the relation between SACO and the prisons. He said, "They were unrelated. There has been a mix-up. We are restoring history's original face."

I paused. An official revision of history was quietly taking place. I wanted to ask about his numerous previous writings contradicting his words, but was too embarrassed to say things like that to someone's face. Instead I said, "The mix-up, was it intended or unintended?"

He paused. Then: "Unintended."

I waited. No more elaboration.

Later I browsed his new book, which was published in November 2008. It is essentially a popular edition of story-telling, with anecdotes of historical figures related to the novel Red Crag. Nothing much new there - all the stories I have read elsewhere, but in one chapter titled "Disclosing SACO Secrets," there is a line saying "SACO was unrelated to Juntong's concentration camp." That's it, one line among 349 pages.

It is progress, I suppose, but I couldn't cheer myself to it. One line, and a history is effortlessly turned, no explanation, no apology, let alone any sense of shame about his own past propaganda writings and organization of mendacious exhibits.

Perhaps that is why Li Hua's book can be published, but Sun Dannian's can't. Perhaps that is why Bo Xilai wants ten Li Hua's for Chongqing.

***

In the summer of 2009, an odd news report appeared on the Chinese internet with the headline "Bo Xilai Says: Chongqing Needs Ten Li Hua's!" It says that Li Hua was elected as Chongqing's "city image publicizing ambassador" by popular votes, and Bo Xilai, Chongqing's party boss, awarded him the title in a big ceremony. With 8.7 million votes cast, Li Hua was third, behind Gu Li (Go player) and Li Yundi (pianist). The report does not say how many votes each had received. Li Hua's achievements? "In 20 plus years, he took the 'Red Crag Soul' exhibits all over China to 383 cities, on 308 tours and with more than a thousand 'Red Crag soul' performances, and moved the hearts of 5.6 million attendees."

Of course, the report doesn't mention any fake exhibits. I was told by insiders that, a black-and-white photo of "SACO's wolfhounds," for example, was taken from a modern dog farm; a "martyr's straw hat" was bought from Wuhan; a "martyr's bed sheet" had a recent year's trademark; a number of "martyr poems" were fabricated ...

Yet those exhibits earned big money from the audiences. Sun Dannian, who participated many of the exhibition tours, told me that in a Beijing tour alone, their tickets sold for over 10 million yuan.

That explains this bizarre line at the end of the above report: "We have indeed seen such a peculiar and exciting scene: numerous contemporary Chinese used money to cast their sincere votes for the Red Crag spirit."

***

A week before I met Li Hua, I went to the SACO museum. Sun Dannian waited for me at the gate. I had recently gotten in touch with her through a mutual friend. She no longer worked for the museum, but still lived in its residential zone.

At the gate, I was surprised that tickets were no longer on sale - instead they were issued for free, and it was up to the visitor to take one. "The tickets are for statistical purposes only," Sun Dannian said. She explained to me that, since 2008, the central government requested that public museums open to visitors for free. "Before that we were awarded 'the national model museum for self-fundraising'," Sun Dannian mocked. She had a morbid detestation of Li Hua's commercial schemes.

X2.jpg(Right: a sign with all positive words about SACO)

Being there for the second time in seven years, I could see signs of change, though inconsistency was everywhere. On one wall, an English sign was all-positive about SACO: "It contributed a lot to the victories of China's Anti-Japanese War" - with no mention of anything negative; on another wall was the old denunciation in Chinese: "[SACO] was the command center and supreme headquarters of American and Chiang's special agents for suppressing and massacring Chinese people."

At Miles' residence, the exhibits looked not much different from 7 years ago, still full of accusations of SACO's alleged crimes. I began to take pictures; a museum staff intervened. "Those are going to be changed," she said, "we just haven't gotten into it."

x3.jpg(Left: a note on the museum map denouncing SACO)

After we finished touring Bai Mansion, Sun Dannian and I were discussing where to go next, when a helpful passerby chipped in to give us a suggestion.

"Refuse Pit! Go see Refuse Pit! That's where I'm going," the man in his 40s said to us. Hearing his Chongqing accent, I asked the man whether he had been here before.

"No. First time." He explained that when he was young and mischievous, his school organized visits every year, and he always made excuses not to come, because he had heard everybody must "hang their head" while standing in silence before the tomb, and he didn't like that.

"Then why do you come now?"

"Such a famous place! Anyhow I should see it after all. Who in Chongqing hasn't heard Bai Mansion and Refuse Pit, the prisons of SACO?"

"What's your basis to say they were SACO's?" I probed.

"It's written in Red Crag! Haven't you read Red Crag?"

"That's a novel, fiction," I said.

"But it's a historical novel, based on historical facts!" the man raised his voice, "I tell you, Bai Mansion and Refuse Pit were ABSOLUTELY SACO's prisons!" He stressed the word "absolutely."

At this point, Sun Dannian, who had been watching the conversation in amusement, nudged me to go. When we were alone, she sighed, "They won't believe otherwise, not yet."

Xujun Eberlein is the author of Apologies Forthcoming, a story collection set in China, and Inside-out China, a cultural criticism blog. She also writes reviews of China-themed books, for example this one.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

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.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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