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."

Left: 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.

For a while she "steeped in familiar ether like I had in the 4th grade," and was a bit surprised such a "pure feeling" still existed in her. She was 39 then, no longer young, with a bumpy life. Ever since she was little, she had an astute awareness of her "bad family background," living constantly in humiliation. Her father, Sun Mingxun, was a devoted disciple of the great educator Tao Xingzhi and diligently practiced Tao's "life education" philosophy. In 1957, however, when Dannian was barely 6 years old, her father, a professor of Chinese literature, was designated as a "rightist."  He was deprived of salary and eventually starved to death in 1961 during the three-year famine, leaving his wife in hardship alone to bring up their two daughters.

The Cultural Revolution cut Dannian's middle school education short. She then spent 10 years laboring in a rural production team.  After the turmoil ended, in 1978, she managed to pass a national exam and enter college, studying Chinese literature where her father once taught.  Upon graduation, she chose to work in Tibet on an 8-year contract.

Now at the museum, her sensitivity was soon tested by the tedious daily propagandizing work, assigned to the staff by the director, Li Hua.  At first, Sun Dannian's childhood reverence for the heroes, and her hard-working nature, kept her skepticism at bay. She is a good writer, and she wrote lots of the exhibition texts, even performance scripts, according to the director's instructions. Initially she believed in what she wrote. Gradually a sense of the insincerity in her words began to bother her. She felt a pressure from inside, but she could not pinpoint what was wrong.

Right: this exhibition photo's caption reads: "special agent murder method  training"

At times, she wondered why, during the cruel war fighting Japan and Germany, the US would bother to send thousands of military experts for the purpose of "suppressing progressive Chinese." That did not make a lot of sense to her. It was a puzzle she wanted to figure out, but she did not know how to approach it.

One day at a friend's house she picked up a book. It was a biography of Chen Bulei, a policy adviser of Chiang Kai-Shek. She flipped the pages, and somewhere the name of SACO caught her eye. There she read an anecdote.

In 1944, Chen Bulei received reliable intelligence information, sent from Shanghai by Tang Shengming, that Japan was reorganizing all its remaining battle-worthy warships into a new armada. The fleet was assembling near the Ryukyu Islands, waiting to launch a fatal surprise attack on the US Navy, to repeat Pearl Harbor and Leyte Gulf.

"Chongqing" (aka China's wartime government) sent the information to SACO immediately. The US Navy verified the information, and struck first. The battle destroyed nearly a hundred Japanese warships, dealing a crushing blow to the Japanese navy.

The line "sent it to SACO immediately" touched a nerve of Sun Dannian. Why send it to SACO the concentration camp? And "immediately"? What was SACO really?

Thus a long and winding research journey began, for which she had to squeeze out time from the busy propaganda work assigned to her.

Now, nearly two decades later, Sun Dannian is ready to present her results.  Her book will counter much of the museum propaganda she helped produce. It will paint a rather different picture of SACO, not only that it was uninvolved in the two prisons, but that it made significant contributions to fighting the Japanese. 
The question remains: is the Chinese public ready to accept this new image of SACO?

(The final installment can be found here.)

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.