An edited version of this story appeared for the London Review of Books under the title: At the Jianchuan Chongqing vol. 40 no.2 25.1.2018 p. 22
This story also formed the basis of the talk “The Museum as Sacred Space: The Jianchuan Museum Cluster and the future of the Chinese Museum” 9/6/2018 at the Long Museum Shanghai’s Museum 2050 conference.
Sitting in a stuffy porta-cabin in a construction site in the vast megalopolis of Chongqing, a hardhat balanced precariously on the table next to him, Fan Jianchuan is weighing his options. He has been invited by the Chongqing government to open a new branch of his eponymous museum cluster. The original, The Jianchuan Museum Cluster, in Anren, a small town of some 80,000 residents in Southwestern China, is the largest private museum in China — –eight million items spread through twenty-nine separate museum buildings that cover a geographic area of thirty-three hectares, with a boating lake, a hotel, multiple restaurants and souvenir shops, a theatre, and a verdant field where visitors can pitch a tent. It is also the only museum in China to openly confront the history of the cultural revolution and to try to preserve its legacy.
The works in Chongqing are going well; he is constructing eight separate museum buildings, built into converted air-raid shelters in the mountainside; they were used as weapons factories when the Japanese bombed the city during the Second World War. Work started in July, but already the buildings are seventy percent completed — he will open in February, months after the works are completed, because the local government, which is building a street of hotels, restaurants, tea houses and shops alongside can’t keep up with his pace.
He scratches his head, which is almost perfectly bald. On occasion, he gets up to take a phone call, or to smoke a cigarette in the doorway, surveying the works that stretch out before him. When he returns to his seat, he picks up the conversation he has been having in rapid fire Sichuanese with Wang Shaobo, the Vice President of a local manufacturing company, and his two assistants. They have come bearing a gift for the museum; a giant 7.2-meter-tall statue of Mao Zedong. The problem is how to get it there. “It’s on a plinth,” Fan says, showing me a picture. The plinth is twice as wide as the statue and is at least 10 metres tall in its own right. The statue is cemented to it. “What a pain,” he says.
Fan is used to rehousing improbably large objects. In Anren, the entrance to his museum is a straight road, flanked by bamboo, that cleaves around a 40 tonne Japanese bunker that was brought brick by brick from Tianjin in the mid-2000s. The Anren site also features a vast array of decommissioned heavy weaponry that Fan sources through contacts from his time in the military — in his late teens he was an artilleryman in Inner Mongolia. There are tanks, anti-aircraft guns, jet fighters, a battleship that leans lackadaisically in a giant stone mooring, and a 28m tall inter-continental ballistic missile, complete with launch pad.
While logistics takes up a lot of Fan’s time and energy, it is more prosaic than the two other issues that occupy him — –the existential purpose of his museum, and its survival. In Anren — before one reaches the Japanese bunker — one must first walk under a giant scaffold; itself brought a few hundred miles from a munitions factory. On the scaffold are the words “to collect folklore for the sake of heritage; to collect lessons for the sake of the future; to collect war for the sake of peace; to collect disaster for the sake of tranquility”. Each of these maps onto one of the four museum ‘series’ that broadly categorize his collection; the Folk Culture Series, the ‘Red Times’ Series, the War of Resistance Series, and the Earthquake Series.
His museum is dedicated to the last hundred years of Chinese history, and what separates it from other museums in China, aside from its scale, is the fact that it has unabashedly tackled the Cultural Revolution. The name ‘Red Times’ is euphemistic; before the government intervened and requested a more neutral nomenclature it was called the Cultural Revolution series.
State museums in China have typically skirted those years. As Kirk Denton, in his survey of post-socialist museums in China has noted, in Tiananmen Square, in the National Museum of China, the Cultural Revolution is remembered in a single photo of Red Guards waving to Mao in the square. The struggle sessions, the beatings, the murders and suicides are all invisible; the neutral framing of Mao in front of a sea of acolytes speaks little to the brutal history of that time. In Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao, Denton finds similar omissions in the town’s Memorial Hall — in an exhibition entitled “Difficult Explorations; Building a Strong Nation” the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward go unmentioned entirely. Rather, the focus is on science, nation building and diplomacy.
Writing in the 1980s the author Ba Jin repeatedly advocated for the creation of a Cultural Revolution museum. ‘“Let history not be repeated” must not be an empty phrase,’ he wrote, ‘in order that everyone sees clearly and remembers clearly, it is necessary to build a museum of the “Cultural Revolution,” exhibiting concrete and real objects, and reconstructing striking scenes which will testify to what took place on this Chinese soil twenty years ago!’
Thirty years on from Ba Jin’s call and the Jianchuan museum is the closest thing that China has to answering his cry. The 50th anniversary went almost completely unmarked in mainland China; the government’s only official acknowledgement came a day later, on May 17th 2016, in identical editorials in the Party mouthpieces the People’s Daily and Global Times that were entitled “50th anniversary — remembrance shouldn’t be extreme”.
During the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Fan was a small child. At the age of nine years old, he followed his father into rural exile and saw him repeatedly beaten. His father, a loyal communist, had been labelled as walking the capitalist road and was ‘struggled’ against — the revolutionary term for being publicly denounced and beaten. At one struggle session, from the dock, his father called to the young Jianchuan to go and collect anything that might exonerate him. Fan started collecting newspapers, documents, anything about the time, and particularly anything that might have had something to do with his father. As he says in his book, Slave to the Big Museum, he did so not just to try and clear his father’s name, but also to understand what was happening to him. How did society suddenly turn on his father, someone who had fought the Japanese and been a loyal communist since the founding of the People’s Republic?
To answer that question Fan did not set out initially to build a museum. Rather he allowed his collecting proclivities to expand, first to anything from the Cultural Revolution generally, and then to anything that spoke to the wider sweep of the last hundred years of Chinese history. His time in the army, and that of his father, who fought in various armies against the Japanese before joining the People’s Liberation Army, sparked an interest in preserving objects that spoke both to the military and to China’s long drawn out ‘war of resistance’ against the Japanese.
After leaving the military and a brief stint as a teacher, Fan became the deputy Mayor of Yibin, the second largest city in Sichuan. After he left his post he followed the currents of the Chinese economy, riding the wave and amassing a fortune estimated at around $300mn. He was, at one time, on the Hurun list, the Chinese equivalent of Forbes’ 500. He never stopped collecting and as his material condition improved, so too did his collection.
“I started with newspapers and documents. Now, I have over 100 tonnes of them,” he tells me. Many items in his collection, spread across vast warehouses the size of aircraft hangers, are measured not by number, but by sheer tonnage.
“One thing helped my collecting more than anything,” he tells me, “the great movement of the Chinese people since the economy opened up.” He estimates that in those years, since the early 1980s, he has moved to a new house over twenty times. This is not unusual; as people’s fortunes have changed they too have upgraded, and as the economy has developed many have relocated from rural towns to cities, or from poorer interior cities to the blossoming metropoli on the coast.
In doing so they inevitably threw away objects, and as the physical embodiment of the aphorism that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, Fan has been collecting this detritus ever since. “A single letter is not history. But I have tens of thousands of letters, from every decade — from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, all the way to today. When you have that many then you have history; you can see how people’s mentalities have changed, how people’s interactions changed… everything.”
But collecting, particularly in the 80s and 90s, was not particularly straightforward — “there was no market,” he says in Slave to the Big Museum. At one stage, he had small trucks driving around the North East of China with speakers on the back of them calling out that “a crazy guy from Sichuan wants your old mirrors. He will give you 10rmb and replace your old mirror for a new one.” Within the space of a few months he had collected over 50,000. The mirrors, all from the Mao-era, are emblazoned with Mao’s face, or invectives: Never forget class struggle! Praise the red sun in the sky! Remember that on the great sea you must rely on the great helmsman!
In Anren they are housed in the mirror museum. It is designed like a maze. There are corridors that lead to nowhere or that loop back on themselves. Mirrors are arranged such that the visitor is intended to get lost. “Before we put red arrows on the floor, visitors would be in here for hours and call us to come and get them,” Fan says. Refracted and warped, the metaphor is obvious; it invites the viewer to imagine themselves in that time, lost in that milieu, the individual obscured behind the slogans. To drive the point home in large brick letters at the entrance to the museum is the Chinese character 镜 jing which means mirror. On the way out is a similar installation, but this time the character is 鉴 jian, which also means mirror, but in the metaphorical sense of the word. It is with this character that one constructs the phrase, to hold a mirror to history.
In holding this mirror to history, the Jianchuan museum is part of a recent development in the global history of the museum — the birth of the memorial museum. Writing in 2007 Paul Williams, a professor of museum studies at NYU, identified the rapid growth of museums “dedicated to a historic event commemorating mass suffering of some kind”. Though the earliest such museums were anti-slavery museums built by abolitionists in the early C20th, it is the legacy of the holocaust and the impetus that ‘we must never forget’ which has most keenly sparked a rush to memorialize atrocities throughout the world. This demand for memorialization has concretized around sites like the Cambodian Killing Fields, in New York at the 9/11 memorial, in the museum for the desaparecidos in Chile, in the recently opened National Museum for African American History and Culture, and in dozens of others beside.
There is an inherent tension at the heart of memorial museums. “A memorial is seen to be, if not apolitical, at least safe in the refuge of history,” writes Williams. “A history museum, by contrast, is presumed to be concerned with interpretation, contextualization and critique. The coalescing of the two suggests that there is an increasing desire to add both a moral framework to the narration of terrible historical events and more in-depth contextual explanations to commemorative acts.”
The point here is that the call to never forget has taken on a new meaning in recent years. Memorials on their own are perhaps not quite up to the task — Williams quotes Robert Musil, writing about monuments to WW1, “like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment.”
Contemporary museums on the other hand, far from being ‘museal’ to borrow Theodore Adorno’s glib phrase, are dynamic. Williams notes that many memorial museums have been born out of post-colonial and post-socialist demands to give voice to those silenced under repressive authoritarian regimes, from apartheid South Africa to the former Soviet Republics.
The vast majority of these museums have risen in states which have experienced huge shifts in their respective politics; born of the widespread desire to draw a line between the old repressive past and more hopeful present realities. This leaves the Jianchuan museum as something of an anomaly, if one is to class it as a memorial museum. While China has clearly undergone some seismic shifts in its economic management, it is still run by the same Party as at the time of the Cultural Revolution, and it still holds onto the figure of Mao, who adorns every banknote and stares impassively from the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
In situating the Cultural Revolution exhibits among a broader sweep of the past hundred years of Chinese history — –amidst vast exhibits dedicated to the aviation industry; to the crimes of the Japanese; to the heroes of the war of resistance, the Sichuan army, the Nationalist army; to footbinding, traditional Chinese medicine, furniture; and to earthquakes — –it can be hard sometimes to understand where Fan stands on the time, or what he expects the viewer to draw from it.
The museum, thanks to the exhibits about the War of Resistance and the number of items which are ranked of the ‘highest national importance’ by the National Relics Bureau, has been classed as a ‘site for patriotic education’ by the government and has received a 4A tourism ranking — only one step below such sites as the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall.
What is on display in the museum is a fraction of the overall collection. As Fan notes in Slave to the Big Museum, much of his collection is still in his warehouses. One day I met him in his office in Anren and we wandered over to one of them. It was cavernous, the kind of space where it takes a few seconds for the lights at the furthest end of the room to light up after the switch is flicked. There were walls of newspapers, countless rows of busts of Mao Zedong, glistening in white porcelain, thousands upon thousands of mirrors leant against each other and layers upon layers of ephemera too diverse to detail; revolutionary sediment, among which ossified remains of truth slowly fossilize.
In Slave to the Big Museum he writes that amongst his overall collection, the items related to the cultural revolution are the most numerous. When I ask him if his collection is open to academics he shakes his head. “Only to the Chinese Social Sciences Academy,” he says (they are government affiliated), “I have signed a memorandum with them agreeing access.” To other researchers they remain emphatically closed. “Harvard has asked,” he tells me, “name me any great institution, Chinese or Western, they have all asked, and I have turned them all down.”
Does he fear government reprisals for what might be exposed? Proposed exhibitions of his about the anti-rightist campaign or the Great Leap Forward have all been refused by the government. In the case of the un-exhibited Cultural Revolution items however he is less worried about the state and more about the individual ramifications of the items. “My museum is dedicated to contemporary history,” he says, “but in some cases these things are contemporary and not yet history.”
“I have items that can implicate a lot of people. Those who struggled. Those who were struggled against. In these records, I have damning things… I am probably the person who has seen the most Cultural Revolution related items alive today. Do you know what this could do to people? They are still alive. So are their descendants.” By now we have returned to his office, and he is sat pensive, a cup of green tea steaming in front of him. “Wait until it is history. Then release it.”
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” wrote the Czech dissident Milan Kundera. In pitting man against power — the kind of totalitarian socialist power that Kundera himself confronted — he argued that the burden of memory is individual. Fang Lizhi, a Chinese dissident writing from the US embassy after the Tiananmen Square incident, wrote of the diverse ‘techniques of forgetting’ that the Chinese government employs, such that for each new generation ‘the true face of Chinese history’ is erased.
Yet what frightens Fan most is not the state, nor its techniques of forgetting, but the individual ramifications of the histories that have accrued in his warehouses. In Fan’s case it is likely, given the nature of the Cultural Revolution, that some of the items in his collection will touch those who now sit in high levels of power in China. Having said that, his concern is less about invoking the ire of Beijing, and more about the fact that no consensus has formed on the Cultural Revolution yet in China.
So many people, both powerful and ordinary, are so intimately implicated in it that were he to reveal the entirety of his archives now he would likely change history and reopen old wounds. It is not axiomatic that remembering is always and at all times preferable to forgetting: there is something to be said for allowing scar tissue to form before the bandages are peeled back. Fan is right to keep these items to prevent them from disappearing into the ether of history, but he is also far sighted enough to understand that in the near-term forgetting can be palliative.
It can be easy to assume the Jianchuan museum sits in opposition to Beijing; that anyone trying to preserve memory in a totalitarian regime must be holding themselves up against the multifarious techniques of forgetting that underpin that state. But Fan is collaborating with the Chongqing government on his new project; he has his eyes on future projects in Qingdao and Shandong, also in partnership with local governments. He also performs a valuable task; he collects objects that are of obvious historical importance, but that the state might not be able to collect itself for political reasons. When he dies, he will leave his museum, and the entire Jianchuan project, to the Chengdu government. It remains to be seen what they will do with it, but their willingness to accept it is telling; they clearly don’t view it as a poison chalice.
It is hard to reconcile our preconceived notions of China — techniques of forgetting, People’s Republic of Amnesia — –with the fact the nation is undergoing a ‘museum boom’. In 1980 there were 407 museums in China but in the year 2014–2015 alone 345 new museums were opened in the country. As of 2015 China had a total of 4,150 registered museums. While there are certain topics — –the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen, to name the most obvious — –that the central government wants forgotten, it would be a mistake to think that amnesia is a universal condition in the People’s Republic. It is clear that there is also a simultaneous rush to memorialise, and the rise of a complicated political economy of memory in the country.
“People told me I was crazy to do this,” Fan says on a muggy day in Chongqing, the sky grey and low, the humidity mottling, “but I knew that as the economy grew, as we could eat our fill and have a roof over our head, that the next thing we would desire was culture.” Fan is at the vanguard. Aside from running China’s largest private museum, and sitting on a network of collectors from every corner of the country, his real estate and infrastructure company is one of the most efficient in China. It is this unique confluence of attributes which has allowed him to spearhead the birth of the modern museum in China.
Throughout his museums are signs that feature a picture of a more youthful Fan — he still has his hair — in a suit, a red scarf wrapped around his neck and a fist held high, with the words “I can build you a museum in the fastest time!” emblazoned alongside. The Jianchuan company has projects around the country, in places like Lijiang and Xichang, building out museums and culture parks for local governments. Unlike Chongqing, these do not also fly the Jianchuan flag — though he helps to select the location, source the items and build the museum buildings.
“A museum needs to be a cluster. It should have eight museum buildings,” he tells me, rattling off the eight museum buildings he is constructing in the site in Chonqging and pointing at their skeletal frames. “It has to be worth you visiting; if you are going to travel a few hours to come here, it has to take an entire day to see it at the very least. Otherwise it isn’t worth it.” He also opens his museums with hotels, bars, restaurants, tea houses, souvenir shops and more. “Revenue streams… a museum needs to have a lot of revenue streams,” Fan says.
Fan maintains that the most difficult thing about running a private museum, even one which brushes up against the edges of political acceptability, is not opposition from the state, but rather ensuring the museums’ survival. In Anren this has translated into building a cultural revolution themed hotel on-site, a ‘people’s commune’ canteen, and selling t-shirts with Mao era slogans on the front.
When I ask him if he doesn’t find this something of a contradiction, that on the one hand he is determined to preserve the lessons of the Cultural Revolution and on the other he seems to trivialise and commercialise it, he shakes his head. “Only to you, because your opinion of museums — because you are western — is too sacred. I don’t think of museums as sacred,” he says. Rather, he wants museums to be considered alongside cinemas, bookstores and libraries as just another medium through which to access culture, without elevating it or reifying it such that it becomes inaccessible to the masses. This, he feels, is particularly relevant in China, where museum going is still a relatively recent phenomenon.
Fan initially wanted to call his museum the Jianchuan Museum Supermarket, rather than cluster. He envisioned great aisles of culture that the viewer could browse through, taking as they wished. He was talked out of the idea, though his museum can at times feel like a vast amusement park. As such, he treads worryingly close to spilling over into a grey area that Williams identifies in Memorial Museums: “Might a growing willingness to make atrocities the subject of evocative visitor experiences see the memorial museum move in the direction of a morbid theme park?”
Maintaining the line between the survival of the museum, which is predicated on generating significant turnover from multiple different revenue streams, and staying true to the history on display, is the biggest challenge for Fan. Considering the Jianchuan museum is an individual — and eponymous — endeavour, striking that balance ultimately rests on his shoulders. “I did this all myself. Everything, from finding this place, designing the buildings… right down to writing the text for each item… can you imagine what that entailed?” he says.
The singular nature of his museum project brings him in line with the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk’s concept of the innocent museum. Pamuk posits that museums should be individual creations: “the aim of present and future museums must not be to represent the state, but to re-create the world of single human beings”. At one point in our discussion Fan makes a similar point — –“I believe everyone has their own museum. It’s just a matter of scale.”
Fan has never heard of Pamuk, and I wonder what Pamuk would make of Fan’s museum. At once it is a completely individual museum, inextricable from the character of Fan Jianchuan himself — there is an ‘I’ in Jianchuan — which is possible only because of the unique contours of his life. However, the scale of the Jianchuan museum stretches Pamuk’s concept of innocence: “monumental buildings that dominate neighbourhoods and entire cities do not bring out our humanity; on the contrary, they quash it. Instead, we need modest museums that honour the neighbourhoods and streets and the homes and shops nearby, and turn them into elements of their exhibitions.”
The Jianchuan museum is anything but modest. Pamuk makes a literary and poetic argument, one which does not have room for a character like Fan who has the resources of a small state. What he has created is unique in history; a museum so improbable that it serves as a poignant reminder that fact will always prove stranger than fiction.
The backdrop to all of this is China’s museum boom; a movement that has Fan Jianchuan at its very core. His status as something of a folk hero in China — his Weibo has over a million followers — and the recognition he is getting from local governments who seek his advice or overtly collaborate with him implies that there is a tacit acknowledgement in China that the past should be preserved and that memory, on some level, has intrinsic value. Were it not for this implicit understanding throughout Chinese society then the entire Jianchuan project would have faded fast and already been forgotten.
When Ba Jin called for a Cultural Revolution museum he said that the construction of it was “something for which every Chinese should take responsibility”. He was implying that the state, as the representative of every Chinese, should build it. Without a change in government this will not happen. Even then, if it were to be built by whatever replaced the current Chinese Communist Party, it would merely serve to represent a version of history amenable to the new state. Perhaps, in an ideal world, there would be no single Cultural Revolution museum but an infinite number — as many as there are Chinese with recollections of the time and a creative impulse to display those memories. Each would construct their own private museum, each a complicated monument to the human condition of remembering and forgetting.
In an un-ideal world, China has the Jianchuan museum, and it is better for it. It is a non-perfect museum, a monument less to the Cultural Revolution than to how the memory of that time exists in China today; in objects, abstracted, commercialized, and subsumed by national discourses of patriotism. It is also a monument to Fan Jianchuan himself, to a life sculpted by the seismic shifts in Chinese society in the last half century.
A life is singular, but it can also be representative. In its ebullience and ambivalence, the Jianchuan Museum is a museum of its time and of its place. Taken as a whole, it is the institution that speaks most accurately to contemporary Chinese history.
In Chongqing, after the meeting with Wang Yubo ends in an impasse — they will speak again after Fan has sent an engineer to go and inspect the statue in person — Fan walks us up the hill towards the giant steel entrance gate that he is building. Fan points to the air-raid shelters built into the hillside that will soon be fully converted into his museum buildings, and takes care to explain each of them to Wang. After the last one, and roughly twenty meters from the entrance, there is an area where the rock face curves inwards. Fan takes a few steps over and stands in the insert, facing out towards the city which teems beneath. He places one hand behind his back, and another stretches out towards the city. He pauses for a moment in the exact position of the Mao statue he has spent the morning mulling over. “Here,” he says, “this is where it belongs.”