Musings on a Museum: A Trip to Xibaipo

By Kenneth Pomeranz

A short trip to China earlier this month took me to Beijing to give a talk, to Shijiazhuang for a conference, and, briefly, to the Hebei countryside — my first time in quite a while in rural North China. And it once again proved that every trip teaches you something, but often not on the expected topics. (One little detail that I found telling: most of the Beijing-based academics who were at the Shijiazhuang conference told me it was their first time there. True, Shijiazhuang is not a tourist hot spot, but it is a provincial capital, with over 2 million people in the city, and it’s barely 2 hours away by fast train.)

One of the talks I was giving was on environmental history, and I’ve become more or less obsessed by North China’s water shortages — so naturally I arrived in the middle of summer rains with everything looking green. That doesn’t mean the water problems aren’t real, of course, but this time around I didn’t learn much about them. (There was a desperate shortage of life-giving fluid — I went without coffee for two and a half days — but that’s another matter.) On the other hand, I learned an awful lot when our hosts in Shijiazhuang took us to a place that I hadn’t expected to find all that interesting: Xibaipo.

Xibaipo, in Southwestern Hebei along the edge of the Taihang Mountains, was part of one of the CCP’s 19 base areas during the war against Japan; it became the party’s principal headquarters after a Nationalist offensive drove them out of Yen’an in 1947, remaining so until March of 1949. (Mao arrived in May of 1948.) It was the site of the key national conference on land reform, and the place from which some of the Civil War’s decisive battles were planned. It was opened as a museum in 1978, and if I heard correctly, it has logged 240 million visitors since then. (Very few of them are foreigners, according to our guide, and I saw no other obvious foreigners during our visit.) Americans can think of it as a sort of cross between Valley Forge and Independence Hall, or what such a place might be if it were plunked down in Appalachia — Pingshan is on the Chinese government’s official list of poverty-stricken counties.

main office of xinhua

Xinhua office

Much of the site is taken up by reconstructions of the homes and offices of major CCP leaders who were here: Mao, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Dong Biwu, and others. (The originals were destroyed as part of a dam-building project — OK, you knew I’d get water issues in there somehow.) Jiang Qing’s room is also clearly marked, but was locked during my visit. All of these are quite Spartan — simple beds or kangs, chairs, and desks, and very little decoration besides a photo of the couple in each residence and some maps, which did not look nearly detailed enough to plot any campaigns on, in the military headquarters. Many also featured some very simple tool suggesting participation in manual labor: a spinning wheel near the bed, a grinding stone in the courtyard. (I have no way of knowing how closely this corresponds to what the place looked like in 1948.) The photos — some probably wedding pictures, some not — are among the most interesting details. Most show the couple standing or sitting close enough that one can’t be sure whether they are touching, both looking straight ahead, only the woman smiling. One wonders whether this is coincidence, or whether, like so many aspects of CCP family and gender policy in these years, they were carefully calibrated compromises between the urban, May 4th heritage of so many CCP leaders and the much more conservative values (at least as the leadership saw it) of their peasant base. The explanations that were provided — both by signs and by our guide, a local middle school student — were generally matter-of-fact. The crowds that filed though were pretty quiet and serious: I saw no expressions of great revolutionary fervor, but I didn’t hear any jokes, either, and one of the most popular places to take a photo of oneself seemed to be by the plaque that had the pledge recited by people joining the Party.

Portrait of a CCP couple at Xibaipo

Portrait of a CCP couple at Xibaipo

An adjacent museum building had one large room devoted to land reform, one to military campaigns, and one to Party personnel and meetings. The land reform room was, at least for me, genuinely moving: hand-written land deeds, handbills announcing the rules of land reform (plus an early draft of the policy with lots of cross-outs), photos I’d never seen before of very excited peasants under a “land to the tiller” banner, and wooden farm tools that reminded you of just how hard farming in this region had been.

draft of land reform doc

Draft of the land reform policy

"Land to the Tiller!"

"Land to the Tiller!"

By contrast, the room devoted to military affairs evoked very little emotion, perhaps in part because there was virtually no hint of whom the war had been fought against. I don’t recall the Guomindang being mentioned by name, nor were there the comments about generic “reactionaries” that would certainly been part of the text not that many years ago. The Japanese were also absent; this area was a base during the Anti-Japanese War as well, but it had far fewer big-name residents during that time, and the exhibit pretty much ignores that era. The guide pointed out one chair that was apparently made from metal harvested from a U.S.-made warplane, but that was about the only hint of who was on the other side. The one table of the museum shop that was devoted to books held the expected biographies of Mao, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and Deng Xiaoping, but more surprisingly also featured titles about the lives of Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling. On the cover of his biography, a graying Chiang smiles slightly and looks into the far distance, seeming particularly paternal and benevolent — one more sign of the continuing Robert E. Lee-ification of Chiang on the mainland. (Indeed, the way the US forgot what the Civil War had been about and substituted a tale of “heroes in blue and gray” might not be a bad model for the way the Civil War is being recast in some recent Chinese media — and lest we think we’re past that, US 1 heading south out of D.C. is still Jefferson Davis Highway. Rehabilitating Chiang seems a lot less peculiar than that.) Meanwhile, any indication of the complex emotions of war was also absent — the pictures and statues showed everyone being implausibly unflinching and heroic, as in a painting of Mao and his troops crossing the Yellow River. (This one made me wonder if the artist had seen the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, and evoked the same reflex response: “Sit down, already! Do you want to capsize this thing?!”) Walking through the long, narrow, very dimly lit tunnel that served as an air-raid shelter was actually a much better reminder that war is scary — or at least that’s how it worked for me.

Crossing the Yellow River

Crossing the Yellow River

Then, of course, there was the stuff for sale — both in the official shop, and on the tables of the many vendors outside. A lot of the merchandise was the same: Mao memorabilia, banners and shirts saying “Xibaipo,” assorted knick-knacks (many with no clear relationship to the site), the usual (allegedly) Qing dynasty copper cash, a few political biographies, and lots of wooden, plastic, and metal toys. The toys that seemed most like they meant something — though I don’t know what — were small metal planes, tanks, and cannons, which appeared to be made out of bullet and shell casings. But these were not art from found objects, like the toys and mobiles made from Coca-Cola cans that you sometimes see elsewhere. The “casings” were bright and shiny, and showed no signs of any previous use — so either they are made from casings that were extra, and never got filled with powder, or there’s a factory that’s making things that look like bullet and shell casings but are intended all along to be made into toys that will evoke the idea of having been made from casings. I saw these in at least one other place in Hebei (Langya Shan, also a revolutionary heritage site, but one where many people seem to go for the scenery), and China Beat editor Maura Cunningham tells me she recently saw something like them in a shop in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. In short, your guess is as good as mine.

"Bullet toys" for sale

"Bullet toys" for sale

And that, in the end, is how I feel about a lot of what I saw in Xibaipo — there are probably a lot of interesting stories here, but I didn’t stick around long enough to figure out how many of the intriguing details were indicative of something bigger versus how many just pointed to one person’s idiosyncrasy as expressed on one day. At some sites, it’s very clear that somebody in charge is trying for a particular effect, and either did or didn’t achieve it, but here I was much less sure what I was seeing: a message that hadn’t changed, but just doesn’t resonate the way it used to? A lack of consensus among different participants about what the message should be? A new message not yet shorn of its rough edges and internal contradictions? The guide for a group right ahead of ours wore a PLA uniform; ours wore sneakers and a pair of old-looking black pants with a tear, and had a happy face sticker next to her microphone. But they both had wooden clappers and used them to accompany what I think was the same rapid-fire patter about the site at the last stop on the tour. The souvenir tables featured the toys made from ”bullets,” but also carved wooden squirrels and a local version of Russian nesting dolls. And the CCP’s opponents in the Civil War were essentially missing — but of course, all the domestic tourists know who they were, at least superficially. So I came away unsure what I had seen — but there would be a lot to learn here about history, memory, and tourism in the PRC for somebody who would hang around a while.

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