Bold political statements are rarely associated with museums devoted to the history of manufacturing. But alongside its antique machinery and assorted technological displays, Shenyang’s new museum of industry offers quite a powerful one.
The National Museum of Industry is somewhat unusual in that most ‘national’ museums are in Beijing. This one is in the provincial capital of Liaoning and it’s there for historical reasons: the area was once the heartland of Chinese industry. WiC paid it a visit last week. We admit, our hopes were not high, and they fell further when it emerged that we were the only visitors.
On entry, the first exhibit is a colossal bronze frieze of heroic proletarians, leading to the immediate suspicion the propaganda will flow thick and fast amid the gleaming boilers and brassplates. This looked to be confirmed on reading some of the early signage, one of which points out that modern industry arrived in China courtesy of Western imperialist powers, who used force to open the country so as to “dump their industrial products” and then “exploited China’s resources relentlessly”.
But the real surprise comes in discussion of industry in the early days of the People’s Republic. Here, the advice was that China’s industrialisation was “extremely backward” until a five-year plan was launched to change that, focusing on 156 industrial projects.
The jolt comes as you read on: “Since then, despite the serious mistakes of the Great Leap Forward and the enormous destruction of the Cultural Revolution, under the hard efforts of the people across the country, an independent and more complete industrial system was established.”
The next signage specifically refers to the Great Leap Forward as a policy “which ignored economic laws”.
This is heady stuff. While eminent Western historians have written volumes about these disastrous periods of history – millions died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward or were killed in the Cultural Revolution – China’s official histories usually airbrush the events out. For example, both periods get skipped almost entirely in the Road to Rejuvenation, a flagship exhibition held at the National Museum in Beijing (see WiC119).
The Party has long found it hard to write honest histories about these events, not least because they were the brainchild of modern China’s founder, Mao Zedong.
So for a ‘national’ museum to talk of the “enormous destruction of the Cultural Revolution” is pretty groundbreaking by local standards (the wording was the same in Chinese as in English, meaning it wasn’t tweaked for foreign eyes only).
Obviously this could be down to a few Shenyang officials going rogue, but WiC suspects that a museum that is designated as ‘national’ must have been vetted by higher authorities in Beijing. What could be going on? China likes to use pilot cities to try out new concepts, so perhaps Shenyang is piloting ‘more accurate history’. As we said earlier, hardly anyone seems to know that the museum exists, so as a toe-dipping exercise it’s low risk.
Another reason for the low attendance: the museum is half complete and is located in an area of the city known as the Iron West. This was the zone where the bulk of Shenyang’s heavy industry was concentrated, although much of the Iron West is now defunct. In fact the museum is partly housed in a former steel foundry (built in 1939 by the Japanese) which dwarfs the visitor with its dizzying scale. It’s impressive, and if you do need to make a business trip to Shenyang, it’s worth a visit to see it alone. We use that last word in its literal sense: it’s not often you get to stand in a giant foundry by yourself.
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