Chaos of Cultural Revolution echoes at a lonely cemetery, 50 years later

The closed gates of a Cultural Revolution cemetery in Chongqing on June. 1, 2011. This year, 2016, marks 50 years since the start of the Cultural Revolution, and the cemetery embodies China'€™s truncated, censored reckoning with its legacy.
The closed gates of a Cultural Revolution cemetery in Chongqing on June. 1, 2011. This year, 2016, marks 50 years since the start of the Cultural Revolution, and the cemetery embodies China'€™s truncated, censored reckoning with its legacy.PHOTO: THE NEW YORK TIMES

CHONGQING, China (THE NEW YORK TIMES) - During China’s traditional festival for honoring the dead, Zheng Zhisheng usually visits a vine-draped cemetery where pillars declare the dead’s eternal loyalty to Mao Zedong. He walks among the mass graves, sharing memories, and sometimes tears, with mourners who greet him as their “corpse commander.”

They are veterans of the Cultural Revolution and their kin, who at the Qingming festival each year gather at the graves of family and friends killed in the convulsive movement that Mao unleashed upon China. Cities and regions became battle zones between rival Red Guards — militant student groups that attacked intellectuals, officials and others — and up to 1.5 million people died nationwide, according to one recent estimate.

Yet this cemetery in Chongqing, an industrial city on the Yangtze River, is the only sizable one left solely for those killed then. Mr. Zheng, 73, is one of the aging custodians of their harrowing stories. He buried many of the 400 to 500 bodies here, on the edge of a park in the Shapingba district.

“I think about their memories and the lessons we should absorb, and I try to comfort the relatives,” he said in an interview. “It would be impossible to erase that time from our hearts.”

Fifty years after the start of the Cultural Revolution, the cemetery embodies China’s evasive reckoning with its legacy. Here the tension between official silence and grass-roots remembrance is palpable.

The cemetery is usually locked. But at the Qingming, or tomb sweeping, holiday, a door opens for families and friends of the dead to hold vigils, light incense and leave wreaths and other offerings at the graves.

This year, officials took special precautions, attaching coils of barbed wire along the top of the wall around the cemetery. They mounted surveillance cameras at the entrance, as well as a sign in Chinese and English that read: “Historical preservation, no photographing.”

On Qingming day, which this year came on Monday, April 4, clusters of older people registered at a booth to enter the cemetery, some joined by couples with children. Dozens of guards hustled onlookers and journalists away, telling them they could not even take pictures of the exterior.

“There’s nothing to see,” one said. “Go away.”

Some 1,700 people were put to death across Chongqing during the worst clashes, which receded in 1968, according to an official estimate by He Shu, the city’s unofficial chronicler of that time. The total killed was probably higher.

Most of the dead here were killed in fighting between youths who used rifles, machine guns, mortars, tanks, even three armored ships that bombarded the shore.

Many were factory workers. Some were condemned by Red Guards, and others were bystanders caught in battles. The cemetery holds victims as young as 14; by some accounts, one was 6.

As the bodies piled up, rotting in the heat, faction leaders conscripted Mr. Zheng, an engineering student, to dispose of them.

In a cool air-raid shelter, he learned to inject them with formaldehyde, and he chose the park site to bury them, using prisoners from the rival faction as helpers. Some of the dead were photographed in Red Guard uniforms — military-style clothes, belts and caps, and badges — while their comrades and family stood proudly beside them.

“I personally laid to rest more than 280 people,” Mr. Zheng said. “I bathed and injected them with formaldehyde, I dressed them, I put them in graves, so my nickname was the corpse commander. We were all sacrificial objects in a political struggle.”

Across Chongqing, 20 or so Cultural Revolution cemeteries were razed as the movement waned and Mao died. This one survived in part because of its out-of-the-way location and a tolerant city party secretary in the 1980s, said Everett Yuehong Zhang, an anthropologist from Chongqing at Princeton University.

But the past it contains has become a delicate topic with the coming of the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. Focusing on that time offends President Xi Jinping’s drive against dwelling on mistakes by Mao and the party. Although his own family suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution, he would rather focus on past glories.

No official memorial events have been announced to acknowledge the milestone; none of the reports about Qingming by the state news media mentioned the Cultural Revolution dead.

“The Communist Party does not want to open this scar,” said Xi Qingsheng, 64, whose mother, Huang Peiying, was buried in the cemetery after she was shot dead while fleeing the fighting with Mr. Xi and one of his brothers. A Red Guard had idly used them as target practice, Mr. Xi said.

“For us, families who were direct victims, we’ve endured terrible struggles,” he said. “We burn incense, kneel before the grave. I still come to the cemetery every year to eat a meal with my mother and leave her some offerings.”

To reach the graves, hidden among trees and bamboo, mourners walked through a park where children squealed on rides, and men and women clustered around mah-jongg tables in a beer garden. A group of teenage boys and girls took photographs of themselves, apparently oblivious to the graves nearby.

“Outside the wall, it’s society, with couples courting and the pursuit of material things,” said Zhou Ziren, 72, a former Red Guard from Chongqing. “Inside, it’s back to an era when people would die for their ideals.”

Some 120 stone and concrete pillars and tombstones mark graves built mainly by schools and factories for their dead. Their inscriptions recall a time when Mao was akin to a demigod for many, and dying in his name meant glorious martyrdom.

“Heads can roll, blood can flow, but Mao Zedong Thought must never go,” an inscription on one of the pillars reads.

“History has frozen here into a pile of stones,” Mr. Zhou said, recalling a poem he wrote about his first visit here. “Just like you can’t avoid the Auschwitz concentration camp or the Hiroshima nuclear bomb when discussing the Second World War, we need to remember this period of history so that it cannot happen again.”

Mao started the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” in 1966 to purge China of “revisionist” compromises that he said imperiled his revolution. He gave his blessing to militant students to enforce his will. But the movement took a chaotic turn, and vicious rivalries broke out between Red Guard factions competing to represent Mao’s vision.

In Chongqing, the schisms erupted into war in the summer of 1967, when militants seized weapons from armament plants.

Most people buried in the Shapingba cemetery supported the “August 15” faction that battled the “rebel to the end” faction.

“We had eight big weapons factories, making tanks and guns and other arms, and many of the workers were ex-soldiers who knew how to fight,” said Wu Qi, a businessman from Chongqing who watched the fighting as a teenager. “It was like a real military battle.”

The victims who have most haunted Mr. Zheng did not end up in his cemetery.

In August 1967, after his August 15 faction had been under ferocious attack, in a fit of fury he handed two prisoners to a crowd that stomped them senseless. A day or two later, he let two Red Guards beat them to death. Their bodies were thrown into a ditch on a university campus.

“This was the greatest regret of my life,” Mr. Zheng said.

He still remembers their names: Li Pingzheng and He Minggui.

Mr. Zheng was arrested in 1970 and later convicted in connection with six deaths — some of which he said he had no hand in — and imprisoned until 1983. He said he dreamed of tracking down the families of Mr. Li and Mr. He and begging their forgiveness on national television.

“There is no sign to show where they are buried,” he said. “But I would like to tell their families where to find them.”