Hidden cemetery tells Cultural Revolution story that Chinese leaders won't

This Red Guard cemetery in Chongqing is reportedly the first Cultural Revolution-related spot in China to receive government protection as a cultural heritage site.
This Red Guard cemetery in Chongqing is reportedly the first Cultural Revolution-related spot in China to receive government protection as a cultural heritage site. Tom Lasseter/MCT

CHONGQING, China — At a lakeside park in Chongqing, tucked in the shadows between the trees and bushes is a cemetery that holds a story that many in China would like to forget.

Hidden behind high walls and locked iron gates are tombs for Red Guards killed during the dark days of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, a ruthless attempt to reinforce Communist party ideology beginning in 1966.

As with everything to do with Mao, the graveyard occupies an uneasy space in Chinese history.

When China's top leaders observed the 61st anniversary of the founding of Communist China on Friday with a flower-laying ceremony at the Monument to the People's Heroes in Beijing, they did so quietly, without the speeches extolling Mao that once marked all such events.

More than six decades after Mao declared the formation of the central government, the country is caught between competing narratives about the legacy of the Communist Party's patriarch.

His revolutionary triumphs are inscribed on monuments around the country, and his face is stamped on Chinese paper currency. A portrait of the "Great Leader" dominates the gates of the Forbidden City, where emperors once lived, and the Tiananmen Square across the street is home to his mausoleum.

On the other hand, few Chinese are eager to discuss the havoc and death Mao's ideological adventures wreaked on the country.

Although the Chinese government in 1981 formally admitted Mao's role in the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution — which together with his earlier Great Leap Forward initiative led to the deaths of millions — it also stated that Chinese should continue to uphold "Mao Zedong thought."

The underlying message then, as now: Officials have no interest in judging too closely the man who in large part built the Chinese Communist Party.

Some 900 miles southwest of the capital, though, the Chongqing cemetery is a reminder of what happened in the years that politicians prefer to leave blank.

The 130 or so tombstones — many marking multiple burials — evoke guilt and sorrow for those who survived, according to ordinary Chinese milling around the paths near the graveyard.

"Those people should not have died, but they had too much belief in Old Man Mao," said Li Xingxiu, 68, her eyes filled with sadness. "Me, personally, I also believed him too much . . . that time made a mess of peoples' lives."

The fighting between Red Guards factions — youth groups at the head of Mao's efforts to wipe out "counter-revolutionary" elements — in the city 1967 and 1968 was particularly violent as militants seized tanks and flame throwers from the city's munitions factories.

In Chongqing, now a fast-growing megacity, many still remember the chaos.

"Was I here at the time? I joined the Red Guards. I was on the side of the revolution, I was for Chairman Mao," said a retired factory worker in khaki slacks and a short-sleeved shirt.

Pushed for detail, he looked nervous.

"Back then it was correct, everyone had to follow Mao," said the man, who didn't want his name published.

State media announced earlier this year that the Chongqing graveyard had become the first Cultural Revolution site in China to be preserved under government order.

Asked about the implications of the decision, Wu Tao, a senior expert at Chongqing's bureau of cultural relics, said "we will only follow the decision made by the central government . . . we will not judge" the Cultural Revolution.

The plan to keep the cemetery was qualified, for access is shut for most of the year.

"It has historical value, but we should wait for a while before opening it, until the people who participated in that event (the Cultural Revolution) have passed away," said Pu Yongjian, a professor of tourism management at Chongqing University. "Many years from now, another generation will be able to view this period of history fairly."

Because students in China are given a sanitized account of Mao's life, and unauthorized texts are blocked, it remains unclear to what extent future generations will be able to consider the subject.

"For young people, we have a general idea about it," said Xiao Zhiqiang, a 35-year-old factory manager in Chongqing. And what do the legacies of Mao and the Cultural Revolution mean for today's China? "I have no idea," Xiao said.

Sitting with a group of friends at the park, Xie Xueru, a former cadre in the local government's agricultural department, said he doesn't like the cemetery at all.

"I don't think it's necessary for this graveyard to be here. It reminds us of the Cultural Revolution," Xie said.

He considered the matter for another moment before speaking again.

"They died innocently and should not be blamed," said Xie, 65. "But they deserved to die. They put too much trust in a 'holy person.'"

Having said as much, Xie looked around and seemed unsure of what to say next. Then it came: "That 'holy person' was Mao Zedong."


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