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China museum builder lets history speak

Fan Jianchuan, an obsessive collector and wealthy developer, uses his massive museum cluster to carefully display objects related to touchy subjects.

November 07, 2012|By Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times
  • A life-size diorama at the Intellectual Youth building at the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Anren, China, depicts parents sending off their children to the countryside. The collection chronicles the stories of 17 million educated adolescents who were sent to work in the rural areas during the Mao era.
A life-size diorama at the Intellectual Youth building at the Jianchuan… (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles…)

ANREN, China — From floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the narrow entry corridor at the Red Era Daily Necessities Museum is bathed in a blood-red light. There is no map, no brochure, no choice of direction; the architecture forces visitors forward, over glowing panels labeled by year: 1966. 1967. 1968. A few dozen paces later: 1976.

A roar comes from a sea of Red Guards in Tiananmen Square, chanting rabidly, captured in a film clip from the era. Mao Tse-tung strides into the frame, whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

The dawn of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 brought a decade of chaos, violence and persecution that ripped China apart. Friends denounced friends, parading them in dunce caps through the streets. Roving mobs smashed religious relics to bits. Mao was elevated to the status of a god, his face stamped onto billions of lapel pins worn like talismans.

Then it was over. The Communist Party declared it all a grave error. Even now, authorities and many average citizens have no stomach for looking back on the era.

When Beijing's National Museum reopened last year after a nearly four-year makeover, curators devoted only a single photo and three lines of text to the Cultural Revolution, focusing instead on more glorious moments: the 1949 communist victory and the last 30 years of reform.

Yet in this small town 1,200 miles southwest of the capital, Fan Jianchuan has embarked on a quest to collect, preserve and display millions of objects, documents and recordings from the Cultural Revolution: photos, diaries, letters, pots and pans, marriage certificates, a piano.

Fan is one of China's most obsessive collectors and one of its wealthiest men. Since 2005, he has used his fortune and savvy to open five museums devoted to different aspects of what he calls the "Red Era." Construction of a sixth has just been completed, and he envisions a total of 12.

The Cultural Revolution museums are part of what Fan calls the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, a sprawling complex on which he figures he has spent about $200 million. Besides the Red Era buildings, the cluster includes museums focusing on other politically sensitive events; seven look at the 1931-45 Sino-Japanese War, and three focus on the 2008 earthquake here in Sichuan province that killed more than 68,000 people.

A visit to the complex is dizzying. Each building is several thousand square feet, and is dedicated to its niche, be it Mao badges or propaganda mirrors, or the contributions of the American Flying Tigers during the Sino-Japanese War. A visitor could spend three days here and not see everything.

He's got other touchy subjects in mind. One is the Great Leap Forward, Mao's 1958-61 attempt at rapid industrialization that ended in massive famine. He's also gathering items on contemporary problems, such as migrant workers, food safety and the 2011 high-speed train crash in Wenzhou that killed 40 people and exposed corruption in the nation's public railway system.

"When the Sanlu tainted milk powder incident broke out, I rushed to the supermarket and told the shop assistant, 'My baby enjoys eating Sanlu.' So I was able to buy two boxes," Fan said. "After the Wenzhou train accident, we were able to collect some doors and windows from the wreckage."

In a country where offering a perspective that veers from the party line can bring harsh consequences — activists, artists and others have faced detention, fines and surveillance for speaking out or appealing what they say are unfair decisions by local authorities — Fan regards the fact that he's been allowed to proceed as a heartening sign of progress.

"From my museum, you can understand the degree of opening and reform," said Fan, 55, sipping tea and puffing through a pack of Yellow Crane Tower cigarettes. "I want to do things actively, but I want to keep it stable.... Even when I'm talking to you now, I feel butterflies in my stomach. Because if anything in your article is too ahead of its time, it might cause trouble for the museum."

Zhang Ming, a professor in the political science department at People's University in Beijing, said Fan's interest in topics such as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward helps fill a void left by the state.

"The government is not interested in these issues," Zhang said. "If you look at the Communist Party's 60 years of rule in China, there are 30 years they don't want to talk about."


Other than his kindergarten report card, the first things Fan can remember collecting were printed denunciations of his father. He was 9 years old.

"In 1966, my dad was attacked. He lost his freedom. He was criticized," Fan recalled. "He needed me to gather up any brochures, notices or posters that contained information about him, to show it to him," so he could minimize the damage to his reputation.

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