Saturday, July 11, 2009

Zhou Enlai and the Cultural Revolution

At the edge of a lake in the middle of Huai'an sits the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall, a sprawling cement complex that, considering Zhou's broad popularity both inside and outside China, was surprisingly empty when I visited a couple of weeks ago. Huai'an, a small city in northern Jiangsu province, is Zhou's birthplace and is a delightful place in its own right, with lots to see and do, but the newest Lonely Planet neglects to mention it. So much the better for me! It's the kind of place where people do double takes when a white person walks down the street. They whisper to each other, they say "Don't look now but there's a foreigner behind us," they say "Hellllooo!," they point, they grin, they break into laughter at the sheer bizarreness of it all. In fact, one six-year-old boy who had never seen a foreigner before went a little bit crazy when he saw me. For about ten minutes he kept shouting over and over again, "I hate foreigners!" and "I don't like the foreigner!" At one point he said, "The foreigner will beat us!" His mother was embarrassed and apologetic, and kept trying to explain to her son that foreigners are people too.

There were hardly any other visitors at the Zhou Enlai Memorial Hall, just me and a couple Chinese tourists. Considering the size of the place, one had the sense that Zhou was somewhat of a forgotten figure—which, of course, couldn't be farther from the truth. He is credited for being responsible, sometimes wholly responsible, for the preservation of cultural artifacts during the Cultural Revolution, for saving the lives of various people, and for stopping acts of senseless violence as best he could. Red Guards threatening the ruins and Dunhuang? One call from Zhou will stop them from wreaking destruction. Over-zealous general on the brink of invading Hong Kong? Zhou injects some common sense into the deliberations. Zhou's hand seemed to be everywhere in the Cultural Revolution; the legend of his intervention seems to grow with every retelling.

So powerful is the legend that it even made it into an official museum dedicated to his memory. It's difficult to find any information at all about the Cultural Revolution in Chinese museums—nowadays, most discourse about it in the public space seems relegated to fiction or the odd editorial about how China needs to avoid "excesses," or is neatly brushed aside by being included in the "30 percent" of what Mao did wrong. But in Zhou Enlai's memorial museum I was surprised to see not only a reference to the Cultural Revolution, but several references to it. Not only that, but, in celebrating Zhou's efforts to rein it in, the museum seemed to imply that the Cultural Revolution was something negative. This isn't anything new, but it is rare to see the view expressed in a place devoted to nationalism.

Granted, it wasn't much. One big picture of Zhou had the caption "Devoting his entire energy and thought to the perilous situation during the 'Cultural Revolution'" (殚精竭虑 苦撑'文革'危局), and nothing else. A piece of paper elsewhere was, according to a caption, "A list of cadres who should be protected, drawn up by Zhou Enlai." Three other pieces of paper were "Zhou Enlai's three telegrams drafted in his own hand on protecting the leading cadres inside and outside the Party, as well as top democrats." A fourth plaque, in the tradition of Zhou's enigmatic nature, had only a quote elegantly concealing any opinions he might have had about what was going on: "In the midst of the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' I only had eight words: 'Spare no effort in one's duty until one's dying day' (鞠躬尽瘁,死而后已)."

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