A powerful earthquake devastated Sichuan Province in 2008 and recovery is still ongoing, but this prosperous and fertile region of southwest China has also suffered a series of man-made disasters.

During the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), when as many as 45 million Chinese died from Mao Zedong’s colossal policy blunder, Sichuan was one of the regions hit hardest by the famine. The region also suffered more than its share during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) because many local people had wartime links with the Nationalists (Kuomintang), who had retreated to Chongqing from Nanjing in 1937.

The privately operated Jianchuan Museum Cluster of 13 buildings located about 90 minutes’ drive outside Chengdu has an entire building devoted to that Sichuan earthquake, but it was closed during my visit. I was told that the families of the victims had criticized the exhibits. In addition, visitors who had seen the exhibits said there was a lot that would irritate officials and make them squirm.

For example, in detailing just how many devastating earthquakes have struck the region over the past century, visitors could not help but wonder why the government’s emergency disaster preparations were so woefully inadequate in 2008. Officials also remain sensitive about the collapse of so many public-school buildings, while adjacent structures were able to withstand the seismic jolts. This led to widespread speculation that corrupt officials turned a blind eye to building-standard violations.

Visitors can ask to see a remarkably corpulent pig nicknamed “Zhu Jianqiang” (“Strong-willed Pig”), who is pampered and living high on the hog having survived the 2008 earthquake despite being buried for 36 days under the rubble.

But fear not — Japan’s wartime depredations do get covered.

But my guide complained, “There was not enough about Japanese atrocities.” Not enough?! Well it all depends on your taste for such things, but in my view the Jianchuan Museum Cluster doesn’t exactly deny the Japanese their due.

As the pamphlet explains, “The Anti-Japanese War Museum series is composed of the Hall of the Core of the Resistance, the Hall of the Conventional Battlefront, The Hall of the Sichuan Army in the War of Resistance, the Hall of the Heroes of the Flying Tigers, The Hall of Unyielding Chinese Prisoners of War, the Chinese Heroes Statue’s Plaza, and the Anti-Japanese Veterans’ Handprints Plaza.” To my mind, five buildings seemed sufficient to get the message across, especially when you throw in the two plazas.

The Handprint Plaza is visually captivating, a series of large opaque glass panels emblazoned with vermilion handprints of aging veterans from the 1937-45 conflict. I also thought the POW Hall was impressive as you enter a structure designed to replicate a prison and soon discover just how horrible being a prisoner of the Japanese could be.

One of the quirkiest galleries in this gem of the so-called Museum Cluster features the practice of foot-binding. It is a fascinating peek at the hard-to-fathom practice of breaking young women’s feet and binding them tightly with cloth to ensure they would remain dainty. One can only wince when looking at the tiny shoes on display.

The museum devoted to the Cultural Revolution has an intriguing entrance through a curtain that thrusts the unsuspecting visitor into a long, dark, narrow hall reverberating with the sounds of a large crowd chanting and screaming as you walk toward a large video projection showing Mao waving his Little Red Book in front of a rapturous and reverential audience. It was totally creepy — like being thrown back into that time of mass hysteria and random viciousness.

Mao-mania is the subject of the exhibits and there are all sorts of mementos from the day. One of the interesting inclusions is a series of the annual New Year covers of the People’s Daily from 1966-76. It always shows a portrait of Mao, but it’s an image that grows in size until 1971 and then shrinks steadily thereafter — perhaps a useful political barometer as the gruesome toll mounted.

This was the most crowded of all the galleries as middle-aged visitors found something compelling about visiting a painful past. Jianchuan also plans a new building to commemorate the Great Leap Forward, another brave effort to broach a touchy subject that explores the party’s checkered legacy. (JK)

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