Friday, December 04, 2009

Cemetery of the Revolutionary Heroes

Eventually, that second day in Shanghai, I stepped out alone. I had a tourist map, picked up from the hotel lobby, and the nearest thing that seemed worth seeing was a cemetery dedicated to the revolutionary heroes. Unfortunately, to reach there, I had to cross roads. This involved waiting at the kerb for the lights to change with a lot of fellow-adventurers; and then nothing much changing when they did. A policeman in the middle would then gesture for us to venture forth. We would then endeavour to pick a way across, the traffic barely abating. Even walking alongside infants in buggies offered little protection; despite the nation's fabled fondness for children the drivers kept coming - their faces set, gazing determinedly ahead and avoiding eye-contact. I concentrated on walking forward with conviction, and exchanging smiles with fellow survivors on the other side.

After having undergone this ordeal a couple of times I looked again at my map and revised my route so as to cross as few roads as possible. Walking along pavements was much better. On long stretches I almost forgot I was walking 9,000 miles away from where I usually walked, and became absorbed with the sights around me. There were bicycles with van-sized loads balanced skillfully each side of the saddle and the front; stores selling an odd mixture of goods with music blaring out onto the road; grand buildings with statues set into walls; and along one stretch of pavement, an extended car wash with suds and water draining over the paving into the gutter.

Even though I was in westernised Shanghai I was aware of being different. Every part of me was wrong: the colour of my hair, skin, the shape of my body ('from the back you look like a man' one of my guides had observed) and people stared. But it was warm, the sun wasn't shining too harshly, and I was feeling a kind of unjustified triumph that I was here, alone, depending only on myself and able to do almost anything I wished.

The cemetery had a guard, and when I gestured and asked if I could come in ('Wa lie ma' - which I hoped meant 'I come?') he nodded and I walked past. The place was immaculate with a ruthlessly ordered atmosphere - and almost completely empty.

The cemetery stones were set in tiers as if they were part of an audience for an open-air performance.

Each stone had a photo and sometimes a few flowers. I didn't like to examine them too closely because it seemed too much like intrusion - the Chinese still revere their ancestors - but I noticed there were babies and children among the dead.

The trees fascinated me - the way their tops swirled and tipped. It seemed liked a willful reaction to the pruning and clipping of the rest of the garden, and yet it seemed controlled too - a permitted disorder.

Then there was an urban waterfall - pointing back towards town

and then, with a similar background, a large statue in twentieth century military communist style.

Here then, are today's terracotta warriors, each face individually wrought

each machine gun trained on the foe ahead - not the Japanese or the Europeans but the enemy within - the people of Chian Kai-shek's army.

On April 12th 1927 there was a large-scale purge of Communists in Shanghai by the Generalissimo's Nationalist army.

This event would lead to the formation of the People's Liberation Army and the ascendancy of a charismatic young Communist leader called Mao Zedong.

The communists consisted of workers and students, and on the 13th they went to the army's headquarters to protest against the disarming of the workers' militias the previous day when over 300 people ha been wounded. They opened fire - killing 100 and wounding many more.

The statue, as a whole, has an appealing line and form, and now I know what it was commemorating, it seems to have a dreadful poignancy.