Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Travels with Li Dongni - Zhazidong prison and the 3 Gorges museum, Chongqing, China (October 2011)

While visiting some of my wife's extended family in Chongqing we naturally took the opportunity to do some sightseeing, so this travel post will look at two of the more cultural places we visited. First though, have to come some photographs of Chongqing's famous skyline.

Zhazidong prison

The name makes this sound like a rather odd place to visit but don't worry - this wasn't the result of a late night drunken run in with the law! Zhazidong prison is a patriotic Communist heritage site, and the setting of a famous (in
China at least) and tragic 20th Century story.

Chongqing is famous for its connection with the Guomindang () - or Kuomintang (KMT) as they are still more commonly known in English.  For those not familiar with 20th Century Chinese history, the KMT were the Chinese Nationalist party – the ones who ran the country before the Communists and with whom a vicious civil war was fought in the 1930s and 40s, and who are still in control in Taiwan.  In 1939 their leader Chiang Kai Shek made Chongqing the nation’s capital after the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese (see my earlier post for the atrocities related to that episode).

Zhazidong prison is located on Chongqing’s Gele mountain, a beautiful place which was home to Chiang Kai Shek’s headquarters (which we also visited) and a large training base for his soldiers.

The prison, located in an old mine, is one of two on the mountain, and was used to house Communist prisoners during the civil war.  More controversially, these prisoners were not soldiers but civilians, both men and women, who expressed sympathy or outright support for the communist cause, and had often been involved in spreading pro-communist propaganda.

One of the most dramatic rooms is one where the prisoners were, for want of a less controversial word, tortured, and the tools that were used form a rather formidable display.

The most infamous event at the prison occurred on November 27th 1949, when the KMT secret police set fire to the buildings with the prisoners still inside, but not before systematically executing many of them.  180 prisoners are believed to have been murdered, but 15 managed to escape the bullets and the fire by breaking through the prison’s outer wall.  Images of those that perished can be seen throughout the site, elevated by the current regime to the status of martyrs.  Many of their individual stories are told in the cells, though the English translations are limited.

Some individual prisoners have become well known, such as the youngest victim Song Zhengzong, who was only a year old when he was sent to the prison with his mother, and became so malnourished he was known as ‘little radish’ because his head appeared so big against his body.  Another famous martyr is ‘Sister Jiang’, a communist operative who was captured after being betrayed.  She was sent to Zhazidong, tortured, and eventually killed in the prison.  Her story has even been turned into an opera in recent years.

In 2007, Chongqing suffered its worst floods in a century, but the damage caused by the waters revealed new information about the prison, uncovering the original 19th Century mine shaft entrance, but also revealing tools that had been hidden beneath the floors by prisoners – evidence, so the site interpretation tells us, that they ‘continued their class struggle’ while in prison.

One bizarre element of the site is the array of souvenir stalls at the exit.  While these in themselves are to be expected, and the amount of communist branded merchandise isn't a surprise, given what happened at the site the quantity of replica period guns seemed to me to be in rather bad taste!  The photo below is rather blurry as it was taken in haste for fear of being shouted at by a stallholder! The fact that the guns sit next to statuettes of Sister Jiang and Song Zhengzong only enhances the tackiness.

Ultimately, all politics aside, the site serves as a stark reminder as to just how far some elements of humanity are prepared to go to stifle those with opposing views, and deserves to be better known outside of China.

Three Gorges Museum

I've been to quite a few Chinese museums during my trips, and this was one I had been very keen to visit.  It falls into the category of those brand new architecturally interesting museums that promises to show off the best of modern Chinese museum thinking.

The Three Gorges dam was a rather controversial project, which is now becoming officially accepted as a costly and damaging mistake – though many knew this from the outset. The idea was to control the flow of the
Yangtze river and create one of the world’s largest power stations.  Sadly, in doing this, huge swathes of land, including historic settlements and areas of immense archaeological and natural importance were submerged or destroyed.

Before delving into the museum, I have to mention something that was happening outside the museum as we were entering.  As part of a scheme to 'demonstrate' the professionalism of the police in light of recent corruption scandals, a series of female traffic police were lining up on parade before going out on patrol - no doubt inspired by some official's trip to see the changing of the guard.  The horse riding outfits were a particularly odd touch.  I’ll let you decide for yourself from the pictures below whether you think this is anything more than a publicity stunt!

The museum itself is attractive enough architecturally, and follows a common style for modern Chinese museums in the use of a central ‘well’ with an architectural feature at the top.  The exterior of the museum can be seen to echo that form of a dam.

The content of the museum is arranged around four key subjects, the 3 Gorges, the ancient Ba culture, the development of Chongqing and the fight against Japan in the Second World War.  There are then galleries examining the creative arts – painting, calligraphy, coinage and folk customs.

We started our visit in the galleries looking at the development of Chongqing, and with hindsight we should have moved past these much more quickly than we did, as they contain vast quantities of replicas and reconstructions of fairly mundane 19th and 20th Century things, and this meant that we didn’t get to finish all of the museum’s galleries.

The more artistic and creative displays can be found in the Ba culture galleries and in those looking at the heritage of the Three Gorges and these contrast well against the slightly more restrained social history elements.

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