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Revolutionizing Antiquity: The Shanghai Cultural Bureaucracy in the Cultural Revolution, 1966–1968*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 September 2011

Denise Y. Ho
University of Kentucky. Email:
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This article examines the response of Shanghai's cultural bureaucracy during the Attack on the Four Olds, the Red Guard repudiation of old culture launched in the early years of China's Cultural Revolution (1966–76). It focuses on how local officials, acting in a space created by the Central Cultural Revolution Group and the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee, worked to control the damage wrought by the political campaign and justified their activities by adapting the rhetoric of revolution. Based on the archival documents of the Shanghai Bureau of Culture, this article traces the reinvention of the cultural bureaucracy and the subsequent shift in the language of preservation. It argues that during the Cultural Revolution, there was an institutionalized and ideologically legitimated movement to protect historic sites and cultural objects. Faced with the destruction of antiquity, Shanghai officials instead proposed its rectification, defending cultural relics in the name of revolution.

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2011

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1 Fresnais, Jocelyne, La protection du patrimoine en République populaire de Chine: 1949–1999 (Paris: Éditions du CTHS, 2001)Google Scholar. See also Denise Ho, “Antiquity in revolution: cultural relics in 20th-century Shanghai,” PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2009.

2 Vidler, Anthony, “The paradoxes of vandalism: Henri Grégoire and the Thermidorian discourse on historical monuments,” in Popkin, Jeremy D. and Popkin, Richard H. (eds.), The Abbé Grégoire and His World (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. 129–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 McClellan, Andrew, Inventing the Louvre: Art, Politics, and the Origins of the Modern Museum in 18th-Century Paris (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 155–97Google Scholar.

4 Stites, Richard, “Iconoclastic currents in the Russian Revolution: destroying and preserving the past,” in Gleason, Abbot, Kenez, Peter, and Stites, Richard (eds.), Bolshevik Culture: Experiment and Order in the Russian Revolution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 17Google Scholar.

5 A recent exception is Gao, Mobo, The Battle for China's Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution (London & Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

6 For surveys of the Cultural Revolution, see Nianyi, Wang, Da dongluan de niandai (The Age of the Great Turmoil) (Zhengzhou: Henan remin chubanshe, 1988)Google Scholar and MacFarquhar, Roderick and Schoenhals, Michael, Mao's Last Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006)Google Scholar. For French scholarship on Chinese patrimony see Fresnais, and Liang, Zhang, La naissance du concept du patrimoine en Chine: XIXe-XXe siècles (Paris: Éditions Recherches, 2003)Google Scholar.

7 Clark, Paul, The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

8 Ho, Dahpon David, “To protect and preserve: resisting the Destroy the Four Olds campaign, 1966–1967,” in Esherick, Joseph W., Pickowicz, Paul G., and Walder, Andrew G. (eds.), The Chinese Cultural Revolution as History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), pp. 6495Google Scholar.

9 The institutional role in preservation has either been minimized or misunderstood. For gazetteers, see Chengyuan, Ma, Xianfeng, Huang and Junjie, Li (eds.), Shanghai wenwu bowuguan zhi (Gazetteer of Shanghai's Cultural Relics and Museums) (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 1997)Google Scholar. For Party histories, compare “Tushuguan, wenwu he bowuguan, dang'anguan” (“Libraries, cultural relics, museums and archives”) in Dangdai Zhongguo de Shanghai (Shanghai in Contemporary China) (Beijing: Dangdai Zhongguo chubanshe, 1993), pp. 293323Google Scholar and Junjie, Li, “Wenbo sanshi nian quzhe licheng” (“30 years of complicated progression in cultural relics and museums”), in Liping, Xie and Jian, Huang (eds.), Feng yu licheng: 1949-1978 (Trials and Hardships: 1949–1978) (Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 2005)Google Scholar. In a recent landmark survey, MacFarquhar and Schoenhals explain that Shanghai set up a “Bureau for sorting looted goods” after the end of the Cultural Revolution: MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, p. 117. The authors cite the memoir of Cheng, Nien, Life and Death in Shanghai (New York: Grove Press, 1986), pp. 504–13Google Scholar. Actually, Nien Cheng does not say when this bureau was set up.

10 Eddy U provides a study of bureaucratic fragmentation during the Cultural Revolution. The co-optation of intellectuals in the education system offers an interesting parallel to the employment of artists and connoisseurs in the cultural bureaucracy. U, Eddy, Disorganizing China: Counter-Bureaucracy and the Decline of Socialism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

11 Jiaqi, Yan and Gao, Gao (trans. and ed. Kwok, D.W.Y.), Turbulent Decade (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1996), pp. 7172Google Scholar and Hui, Yu (ed.), Hongweibing mi lu Hongweibing mi lu (Secret Records of the Red Guards) (Beijing: Tuanjie chubanshe, 1993), pp. 192–93Google Scholar.

12 See e.g. “Shanghai Tianjin geming xiaojiang he shangye zhigong xiang boxuejiji ‘sijiu’ fadong zonggong: huiqi geming tie saozhou, hengsao yiqie jiuxisu” (“Revolutionary little generals and commercial works in Shanghai and Tianjin make a general offensive against the Four Olds of the exploiting classes: raising the revolutionary iron broom, they sweep away all old customs”), People's Daily, 25 August 1966, p. 2.

13 Wang Nianyi, The Age of the Great Turmoil, pp. 67–68.

14 “Po sijiu xin yibailie” (“100 items for destroying the old and establishing the new”), Mao Zedong zhuyi xuexiao hongweibing (Mao Zedong Ideology School), August 1966, in Yongyi, Song (ed.), Zhongguo wenhua da geming wenku (Chinese Cultural Revolution Database) (Hong Kong: Xianggang Zhongwen daxue Zhongguo yanjiu fuwu zhongxin, 2002)Google Scholar (WDGW). The translation of this document comes from Schoenhals, Michael (ed.), China's Cultural Revolution, 1966–1969: Not a Dinner Party (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 212Google Scholar.

15 Ibid. p. 216.


16 It should be noted that house searches were even more extensive in Shanghai than in Beijing. Compared with 33,695 in Beijing, in Shanghai a total of 84,222 homes were searched. Barnouin, Barbara and Changgen, Yu, Ten Years of Turbulence: The Chinese Cultural Revolution (London: Kegan Paul International, 1993), p. 98Google Scholar, and Yu Hui (ed.), Secret Records of the Red Guards, p. 193. There is a small discrepancy between these two sources: Secret Records of the Red Guards lists 33,600 households in Beijing and 84,222 in Shanghai. Another account records 150,000 households searched in Shanghai Municipality: Yan Jiaqi and Gao Gao, Turbulent Decade, p. 79.

17 Zhong, Zheng, Haishang shoucang shijia (Collectors in Shanghai) (Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 2003), pp. 147, 247, 311, 335, 376–77Google Scholar.

18 “Qingtong de youhuo: Yang Lan fangtan Ma Chengyuan” (“The allure of bronzes: Yang Lang interviews Ma Chengyuan”), Wenhui bao, 10 October 2004.

19 In January 1967 the municipal government was overthrown and the Shanghai Party Committee was replaced by the Shanghai People's Commune, renamed the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee on 23 February. The new Bureau of Culture then answered to the Revolutionary Committee. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, pp. 166–69.

20 Shanghai Municipal Archive (SMA), B172-3-5.

21 SMA B172-3-5, p. 12. The suggestion was approved two weeks later by the People's Committee.

22 Ibid. The sites included the Guangfu Temple, the Merchant Shipping Guild, the Yuxiang Temple Pagoda in Jiading county and the Jiyunchan Temple Pagoda in Qingpu county. The Guangfu Temple was eventually razed to make way for a three-storey office building in 1969. At that time the Shanghai Museum approved its destruction as a building with “little historical value.” SMA B172-3-28, p. 40.


23 SMA B172-3-5, pp. 12–14.

24 Chengyuan, Ma, Xuanfeng, Huang and Junjie, Li (eds.), Shanghai wenwu bowuguan zhi (Gazetteer of Shanghai's Cultural Relics and Museums) (Shanghai: Shanghai shehui kexueyuan chubanshe, 1997)Google Scholar (SHWWBWGZ). See individual entries, pp. 171, 174, 177. For an account of the destruction at the Longhua Temple, see Ding, Jin, “Bu dao de Longhua ta” (“Longhua pagoda wasn't destroyed”), in Pengju, Chen (ed.), Shoucang lishi (Shanghai: Shanghai shudian chubanshe, 1998), pp. 235–37Google Scholar.

25 Qi Benyu was originally an historian at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1961 he worked in a locomotive and rolling-stock works in Beijing and wrote to Mao criticizing its supervision by the Beijing Municipal Committee under Peng Zhen. In 1963, he wrote an article critical of Liu Shaoqi. He was appointed to the CCRG in September 1966, and made associate editor of Red Flag in February 1967. In February 1968 he was attacked and purged for ultra-leftism. See Who's Who in Communist China (Hong Kong: Union Research Institute, 1969), Vol. 1, pp. 128–29Google Scholar, and Chinese Communist Who's Who (Taipei: Institute of International Relations, 1970), Vol. 1, pp. 133–34Google Scholar. On the purge of Qi, see Qi Benyu ziliao ji (Collected Materials on Qi Benyu), Harvard-Yenching Library. Qi's role in cultural preservation does not seem well-known, although today one can find this account on the internet.

26 “Qi Benyu zai gugong de jianghua” (“Qi Benyu's speech at the Palace Museum”), 1 December 1966, Wuchanjieji wenhua dageming cankao ziliao, Vol. 4, in WDGW.

27 This meeting came two weeks after Qi led denunciations of the leadership of the Ministry of Culture. “Qi Benyu zai Wenhua bu bianlunhui shang de jianghua” (“Qi Benyu's speech at a debate at the Ministry of Culture”), January 1, 1967, Beijing bolizongchang hongweibing lianjiezhan (eds.), Zhongyang shouzhang jianghua, March 1967, in WDGW.

28 On burning confiscated items, see Wang Nianyi, The Age of the Great Turmoil, p. 71.

29 “Qi Benyu yu tushu wenwu kaogu bowuguan deng danwei geming zaofanpai daibiao zuotan” (“A discussion meeting with Qi Benyu and representatives from the revolutionary rebel factions of work units representing libraries, cultural relics, archaeology, museums, etc.”), 27 January 1967, Wuchan jieji wenhuadageming shouzhang jianghua huibian, April 1967, in WGDW. The following quotations all come from this document.

30 This note ends the quotations from ibid.

31 Beijing zaozhi zongchang shoudu zhigong geming zaofanzhe lianzongzhan (Beijing Paper-Making Industrial Complex Worker's Revolutionary Rebels United Station) et al., “Guanyu baohu gujiu shukan zihua de changyishu” (“Proposal regarding the protection of ancient and old books, periodicals, calligraphy and painting”), unpublished flyer, 15 February 1967.

32 Specifically, workers from the Beijing Library, the China Bookstore and the New China Bookstore had both attended the meeting and signed the petition. Additionally, several institutions mentioned at the meeting then appeared as petitioners, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Palace Museum and the Museum of Chinese History.

33 Despite the success of Shanghai's “January storm,” a number of measures were taken in February 1967 to rein in the excesses of the Red Guards. Mao turned on these critics in mid-February, and the “February Countercurrent” was used by the CCRG against the Party leadership. Though it would be tempting to link the flyer to the February Countercurrent, I would argue that in its aftermath, it was all the more imperative that protecting cultural relics be defined as revolutionary.

34 SMA B172-3-5, pp. 8–9. Page 9 is the original telegram. The Shanghai Bureau of Culture's reply is not copied in the archive. This telegram was also sent to other cities, and a reply was requested within two days.

35 SMA B172-3-5, p.1. This document was relayed from the Ministry of Culture to the Bureau of Culture, whereupon it was relayed to areas under Shanghai Municipality's jurisdiction and other counties in the east China area. Shanghai's subordinates, the Cultural Relics Commission, the Shanghai Museum and various Shanghai recycling companies, were notified. A more detailed order from the CCRG followed in March, requesting that localities manage all relics from the Four Olds campaign, “to be taken care of after the movement is over.” SMA B172-3-5, p.4. This document was copied to the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee, originally received from the Ministry of Culture on 28 March 1967, and received at Shanghai on 12 April 1967.

36 Mao wrote the essay “On New Democracy” in 1940. See The Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1954), pp. 153–55Google Scholar.

37 Beijing zaozhi zongchang et al., “Proposal regarding the protection of ancient and old books, periodicals, calligraphy and painting.”

38 This section ends the citations from ibid.

39 Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong both stressed the creation of a “three-in-one” combination that would include revolutionary cadres. MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, Mao's Last Revolution, p. 158. This first appeared in Red Flag and was reprinted in a People's Daily editorial on 10 March 1967. On 11 March the Central Committee ordered all organizations to follow suit. Kwok-sing, Li (ed.), A Glossary of Political Terms of the People's Republic of China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1995), pp. 270–71Google Scholar. This combination was attempted in the Wenwu Small Group as well, SMA B172-3-5, p. 16.

40 Another secondary source lists 16 work units and explains that at its height the Wenwu Small Group had 106 workers. Li Junjie, “30 years of complicated progression in cultural relics and museums,” p. 214. Unfortunately the individual members were not listed, and all correspondence was signed by the Wenwu Small Group as an organization.

41 SMA B172-3-5, p. 26.

42 It is interesting to note that throughout this process the Shanghai Wenwu Small Group referred to its Beijing counterparts and knew what they were doing. For more on the logistics of the operation, see SMA B172-3-5, pp. 15–17 and Ho, “Antiquity in revolution,” pp. 239–41.

43 SMA B172-3-5, p. 21.

44 Ibid. p. 27.


45 Ibid. p. 27. Songjiang county appears to be exceptional, perhaps because of historic wealth and culture in the town.


46 “Zhonggong zhongyang guanyu wuchan jieji wenhuadageming zhong baohu wenwu tushu de jidian yijian” (“Several opinions from the Central Committee in regards to protecting cultural relics and books during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”), 14 May 1967, Wuchan jieji wenhua dageming wenjian huibian, 1 April 1968 in WDGW. Also reprinted in Wenhua dageming ziliao, p. 463. Before this 14 May directive, there was an earlier central document issued by the Central Committee, the State Council and the Military Affairs Committee on 16 March regarding state property. “Zhonggong zhongyang, guowuyuan, zhongyangjunwei guanyu baohu guojia caichan, jieyue nao geming de tongzhi” (“Notice from the Central Committee, the State Council and the Military Affairs Committee on protecting state property and economizing when making revolution”), Wuchan jieji wenhuadageming youguan wenjian huiji, Vol. 2, June 1967, in WDGW. Dahpon Ho interprets the 14 May suggestions as a clarification of the 16 March circular.

47 Shanghai shi geming weiyuanhui zhengzhi xuanchuan zu (Shanghai Revolutionary Committee, Political Propaganda Group), “Genju Zhonggong zhongyang zhishi jingsheng, Shanghai shi wenwu tushu qingli xiaozu zai shi geming wenwu weiyuanhui de zhijie lingdaoxia yijing zhengshi chengli, bing kaishi guozuo” (“According to the spirit of the directive of the Chinese Communist Party, the Shanghai Municipal Small Group for Sorting Cultural Relics and Books has already been formally established and has begun their work under the direct leadership of the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee”), unpublished flyer, 19 June 1967.

48 The work of the Wenwu Small Group remained sensitive, and their reports were classified and labelled top secret (jimi). Its report of August 1967 was sent directly to the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee and the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee Political Propaganda Group. It was also copied to the CCRG, various Revolutionary Committee Groups, and the Shanghai Bureaus of Real Estate, Culture, Publishing and Finance. I presume that this report was vetted, rewritten and issued a second time in November for the Central Committee and the CCRG. The revised November report is the last document I located in the archival record.

49 Official history also lists the founding date as April 1967. SHWWBWGZ, p. 376.

50 SMA B172-3-5, p. 30. Though it was not specifically credited, this quotation is from “The new stage in the development of the National War of Resistance Against Japan and the Anti-Japanese National United Front” (Report to the Enlarged Sixth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, 12–14 October 1938), in Schram, Stuart R. (ed.), Mao's Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912–1949, Vol. VI: The New Stage, 1937–1938 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2004)Google Scholar, p. 538. I use Schram's translation.

51 SMA B172-3-5, p. 30.

52 From the August 1967 report, the Wenwu Small Group estimated that based on their current number of personnel it would take two or three years to sort through all the things they had collected, and require at least 5,000 square metres of storage space. They had been using storage in the Jade Buddha Temple and had attempted to take over some rooms in the Xujiahui Cathedral, but the space had been turned into an umbrella factory. SMA B172-3-5, p. 40. As for the number of materials received, a present-day gazetteer puts the total between June 1967 and December 1968 at 3,320,000 wenwu and handicrafts and 5, 470,000 volumes of books. SHWWBWGZ, p. 376. In Beijing, salvaged wenwu included 117 tons from scrap metal plants and 320 tons from scrap paper plants. From house searches, Beijing totals were 1,850,000 paintings, 23,570,000 volumes of books and 5,380,000 miscellaneous wenwu. Suzhou house searches yielded 170,000 books, paintings and wenwu. See Wang Nianyi, The Age of the Great Turmoil, pp. 70–71.

53 Unfortunately, these two documents are listed as attachments to the November 1967 report but were not included in the copies.

54 SMA B172-3-5, pp. 31–32.

55 Ibid. p. 33.


56 Ibid. p. 40 and SHWWBWGZ, p. 376.


57 SMA B172-3-5, p. 33.

58 Ibid. p. 34.


59 Ibid. pp. 34–35.


60 Ibid. pp. 34–35.


61 Zheng Zhong, Collectors in Shanghai.

62 SMA B172-3-5, pp. 33–34.

63 Ibid. p. 4.


64 Shen Jianhua, “Huainian fuqin Shen Zhiyu” (“Remembering my father Shen Zhiyu”), in Zhiyu, Shen, Shen Zhiyu wenbo lunji (Collected Writings of Shen Zhiyu on Cultural Relics and Museums) (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 2003), p. 433Google Scholar. Shen does not specify when her father made this remark, but it appears that it was after he was released from the Shanghai Museum in 1969.

65 Shen Zhiyu, “Guanyu wenwu baohu zhengce de jianggao” (“Speech notes on policies for protection of cultural relics”), in Collected Writings of Shen Zhiyu, p. 73.

66 From members of the central leadership to workers in the museum, cultural relics remained important throughout the Maoist period. On the connoisseurship and collection of Kang Sheng, see Dahpon Ho, “To protect and preserve.” For Mao's circle, see a recent volume on the collection of his personal secretary, Tian Jiaying. Lie, Chen, Tian Jiaying yu xiao mangcangcang zhai (Tian Jiaying and the Little Studio of the Vast Grasses) (Beijing: Shenghuo, dushu, xinzhi sanlian shudian, 2002)Google Scholar.

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