I am somewhat fond of public history despite knowing nothing about it. So, one of the things I am assigning to my Modern China students is Dahpon David Ho‘s “To Protect and Preserve: Resisting the Destroy the Four Olds Campaign, 1966-1967”1 Ho looks at the Cultural revolution history of the Confucius Temple Qufu, Shandong. I’m not sure if anyone knows if Confucius actually lived there, but it has been the home of his descendants the Kongs and a central part of the Confucian cult throughout the imperial period. Thus it would be a place that the Red Guards would very much have wanted to destroy. They were not able to do so because the place was ably defended by locals, and why and how they did it is the topic of Ho’s essay.
One thing that Ho makes pretty clear is that lots of people thought destroying cultural relics was wrong from the get-go. Zhou Enlai gets a lot of credit here but there were plenty of others, and most of them used revolutionary rhetoric to defend these relics, confiscating things and then claiming that destroying them would be destroying state property, closing museums and temples to the public or, as in the case of three memorial steles for Jesuit missionaries, having the Red Guards help bury them. One could also praise the workmanship of ancient peasant craftsmen, or point out that the Japanese had also tried to destroy these relics. Calling something “old” is just one way of attaching history to an object, and of course there are others.
In the case of Qufu, Ho shows that local pride was a major factor. Qufu county secretary Li Xiu had begun organizing supporters even before the Red Guards arrived. He claimed later that he felt he was “defending our country’s cultural relics.” Local youth had smashed a lot of “four olds” but they had ignored the Confucian sites, which were “built with the blood and sweat of countless generations of laboring masses.” Chairman Mao had toured the site in 1952, and while he had not said anything nice about it (as he had at other sights) he had not called for its destruction either. It was not until August of 1966 when the sites were attacked by students from Qufu Normal Institute (mostly not local people). They were driven back by locals, but they soon began to find allies among students in Beijing. Eventually a fair amount of damage was done, but the buildings themselves were preserved as a reminder of the “Kong family landlords.”
What I found most interesting about the article is how spot-on it shows the Anti-Four Olds campaign to have been. A lot of Western accounts treat it as a silly/stupid thing that may have caused a lot of destruction but had little “real” importance. Actually, there seem to have been few signs of “feudal” society that meant more to those destroying them and those protecting them than relics. Ken Ling, one of the Red Guards was moved by the willingness of (mostly old) people to risk their lives to defend these relics. “The stubbornness of these people angered me, but it also moved me.” And, one presumes, made him think.
in Esherick et al eds. The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History Stanford 2006. ↩
In 2006 I went to Hangzhou and visited the Lingyin temple. My tour guide, a Han Chinese friend and I admired the stone carvings of scenes from Journey to the West at Feilai Feng near the laughing Buddha statue. He told me the Red Guard destroyed parts of the ancient carvings during the Cultural Revolution. He was ashamed of what they had done to an ancient cultural treasure. No monkey king remains on the stone wall near Lingyin.
I love Hangzhou, Lingyin temple, Broken Bridge of West Lake, Dragon well tea, the White Snake Legend. The Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness is as important to me as Hangzhou. Today I am very sad for Tibet and China.
China does not understand that many westerners are as interested in China as they are in the Tibetan wisdom of the Dalai Lama. We see good things in both that we lack in our own society. We also see in our western society good things that are lacking in the east. In the US we have experienced racial divisions more severe than what happened in Tibet, yet we may elect the first African American to be president. Many westerners look forward to a successful Olympics in Beijing, many westerners who love China also love Tibet, we do not understand why modern Chinese want to disown their past. The revolution in 1949 that liberated China from a feudal slave society has gone too far and China has lost some things from the past that were good. In cutting out the cancer the surgeon has also cut the heart of the patient.
I cannot help but think of the damaged carvings of Lingyin and the story of the Chinese Buddhist Monk who traveled to India with the help of the Monkey King. Today in Tibet another part of China’s past is being destroyed. If the Dalai Lama and Tibet are no longer part of the spirit of China’s heritage why do you tolerate the Lama temple in Beijing? No one in China should care if you demolish the Lama temple and build a shopping mall. Yet you refrain from doing so. You say the Dalai Lama is a “wolf in a monks robe” yet you hold the Lama temple close to your heart in Beijing. Chinese people do not understand themselves why they hold on to the Lama temple. It takes a friend to see you and understand you in ways that you cannot yourself.
Many Chinese say they are atheists and don’t care about Buddhism. I suspect this is not totally true. Even now you sense it would be wrong to destroy the connection to your past that once loved the Lamas of Tibet as brothers. Someday you will realize that there is more to life than economics and jobs. You will not return to the devote Buddhism of your past, but you still need the wisdom of the Buddha and the Dalai Lama to help make sense of life in this modern world faced with so many difficult challenges that affect all of humanity. If you destroy the Tibetan culture and let the Dalai Lama die in exile then one day another Han Chinese will tell his American friend the story of how that happened and feel ashamed.