I’m sure that I’ve written about this already, but a search for such an article has revealed nothing, so here ya go. Sorry for the terrible pictures, this was one of the few places that actually enforced the prohibitive policy.
I had a strong sense that we were in a place we were not supposed to be. Our day trip had taken us to visit a local attraction dubbed the ebony museum, a large building containing hundreds of incredibly elaborate carvings made out of dense, black wood (potentially ebony). This was a great visit, but it is not the focus of this story. Lets start at the top.
We left the ebony museum, and our guide informed us that we happened to be right next to another museum containing the worlds largest collection of Mao memorabilia. The validity of this statement has yet to be determined, but I will say that it was pretty damn huge. I had a good laugh to myself, having a little moment similar to many of those in the work of Peter Hessler; on a random highway in China where there just happened to be a massive Maoabilia exhibit.
As we took a photo outside of the building, I started to have an uneasy feeling, probably the only ‘bad feeling’ that I had for the duration of our time in China. As we passed through the turnstile, I happened to notice a decent sized group of Chinese men sitting on the porch, observing our passage. More on this later.
The inside of the building was extremely poorly lit, but then again it was a roadside museum. Almost as soon as we had entered I felt the urge to leave, but at the same time felt a full fascination with the glimmer of stuff. Everywhere I looked, there was the face of Mao. Buttons, pins, badges, posters, banners, all staring back with the likeness of the chairman. The museum itself was nothing less than a maze, with long winding hallways that seemed to lead into nothing, twisting back on themselves and going further into the building. As far as I could tell, the passage was meant to follow a course of time, with years of history passing along with the distance we moved. The further back we went, the more menacing it seemed the faces on the badges became. Overwhelming doesn’t quite describe it.
And then there was a shift. Instead of just finding buttons on their own, we began to encounter huge pieces of artwork, each portraying a classic Chinese image, all made out of variations of these Mao buttons. The face of the Chairman, used to depict cliché pieces of Chinese culture. Thousands upon thousands, different shapes, colors and sizes, but all bearing the same face. I later found out that this collection was the work of one man, and that in addition to collecting, he had also created these bizarre mosaics. Weird, to say the least.
After taking some time looking at a number of these huge boards, I realized that the group was no longer with me. On most occasions, this isn’t something that bothers me in the least, but this was not most occasions. Something about the sheer number of buttons, many having survived the darkest days of the cultural revolution, spooked the life out of me. Even with those dark years long passed, these little medallions oozed oppression.ββββ
Back to the Chinese men on the porch. A group of American students in rural China is not a subtle event. We drew attention to ourselves. Something as simple as taking a picture in front of a tourist attraction was enough to draw over at least one or two Chinese, eager to be a part of the event. But the men on the porch hadn’t shown the slightest interest, hadn’t even moved from their seats. As far as I could tell, they didn’t even speak to each other about our arrival, and that never happened. Although this was a tourist attraction, I’m guessing that the frequency of visits from non-Chinese was pretty low. As I walked through the hallways (still without my group), I became aware that a few of the gentleman from the porch were drifting behind me, not really paying much attention to what I was doing, but definitely keeping an eye on me. Having found the entrance, I stood outside and waited for the remainder of the group.
I do not think these individuals had any malicious intent, but on the same point feel that they didn’t quite value our presence. There was an undeniable air about the building, something bordering on sacred. The cultural revolution is twisted time in Chinese history, and though that time has passed, there is a generation for whom the memories and emotions are still quite fresh. It would not surprise me to find that we were an intrusion upon a location that preserved these memories. I can understand the happenings of that time period, but by no means can I feel that level of suffering. Many of the mosaics depicted happy scenes, pictures of people fishing and of the sun rising over the mountains. One in particular, the largest that I found, was a long image of a dragon, twisting in and out of itself. Standing from a distance, they were images showing the heart of Chinese culture, beautifully done in many colors. Viewing them from a few feet away, however, all you could see was the face of Mao, a haunting reminder embedded within the beauty. The statement that this created gave me the creeps, and left me thinking for a long time.