On Sunday we joined a motley group of international academics and students on an outing to Xikou, near Fenghua, a town about 20 miles south of Ningbo and the ancestral home of General Chiang Kai-Shek, leader of the Nationalists in China from the mid- 1920s.
In drifting mist we climbed up a rocky path to the General’s mountain top summer residence, a small villa on a natural platform hundreds of feet above a valley lined with bamboo forests. We couldn’t see anything of the view, but all the same could get a sense of the strategic significance of the villa’s situation. It was a beautiful eyrie, where the General could survey the enemy and plan his next move – all in western style luxury. He made a last visit here in 1949 before fleeing to Taiwan.
Not surprisingly, the villa did not survive the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and what we saw was a complete modern reconstruction. How could it have done, given that Chiang was leader of the losing side in the civil war that beset China after the defeat of the Japanese? Nevertheless, there was something deeply disturbing about the idea of a group of presumably young people ascending a steep mountain path with the sole intention of torching a house which no longer had any purpose.
It is quite difficult to unravel the complex legacy of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, officially known as ‘the ten years of chaos.’ Of course, it is still well within living memory as I have found when I have interviewed people in my Ningbo park. Often people speak about it obliquely – ‘I used to play the ‘er hu’ (a two-stringed instrument) at school but I stopped. Now I’ve retired I’m able to play again.’ The ‘stopping’ actually happened because the instrument was banned during the Cultural Revolution, but people rarely say this, especially not to a foreigner. The passionate enthusiasm for the local style of opera performed in the park, Yue Ju, maybe also relates to prohibitions in the 1960s. Now people born in the 1950s or earlier can sing and perform it again, and the local adult college teaches courses to aid the revival.
Some interviewees told me about how they had been ‘sent down’ to the countryside when they were 17 to work on farms, thousands of miles away in the wild north east of China. This happened to 70,000 school leavers in Ningbo alone. Many stayed for 13 years, with only one visit home a year – some never returned. Brutal as this experience doubtless was, the park is also a repository for nostalgia for this period, when perhaps things seemed simpler and the group ideology gave people a sense of purpose.
Some areas of the park are used by people to sing ‘Red’ songs – the music that was allowed during the Cultural Revolution, and some interviewees talk about how much they liked the music and working in the remote forests and fields. I discovered that there is even a museum just outside Ningbo full of memorabilia from this experience, including winter clothes, vintage radios, farm implements and so on. This is a very different account of the past from what I’ve read in say ‘Wild Swans’, famous in the west and known as ‘scar’ or ‘wound’ literature in China.
Of course the Cultural Revolution was a time of terror for many people, especially teachers or anyone identified as a ‘capitalist roader’ and my research has uncovered some horrible episodes. One educated man, perhaps a teacher, in an online posting recalled the public humiliation he underwent in the stadium that used to be next to the park. He still felt unable to speak out, despite the changes in society.
How are people coming to terms with this violent episode and their role within it? A Guardian article last week described how a woman in her 60s who had been a leading Red Guard wanted to express remorse for her actions in helping to kick her teacher to death. She sought forgiveness from the still surviving husband of the dead woman. He refused to see her.
The way China deals with the past is always to look forward. ‘Truth and reconciliation’ are not in the lexicon, and perhaps never can be given the sheer numbers of people involved. Everything is focused on the needs of the economy and how to make China rich now. And that is of course at the root of why Chiang Kai Chek’s villa has been rebuilt, along with a massive Buddhist temple on the adjoining site. They are tourist attractions and can bring in money to the region.