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. ↩