Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Travels with Li Dongni - Zhazidong prison and the 3 Gorges museum, Chongqing, China (October 2011)

While visiting some of my wife's extended family in Chongqing we naturally took the opportunity to do some sightseeing, so this travel post will look at two of the more cultural places we visited. First though, have to come some photographs of Chongqing's famous skyline.

Zhazidong prison

The name makes this sound like a rather odd place to visit but don't worry - this wasn't the result of a late night drunken run in with the law! Zhazidong prison is a patriotic Communist heritage site, and the setting of a famous (in
China at least) and tragic 20th Century story.

Chongqing is famous for its connection with the Guomindang () - or Kuomintang (KMT) as they are still more commonly known in English.  For those not familiar with 20th Century Chinese history, the KMT were the Chinese Nationalist party – the ones who ran the country before the Communists and with whom a vicious civil war was fought in the 1930s and 40s, and who are still in control in Taiwan.  In 1939 their leader Chiang Kai Shek made Chongqing the nation’s capital after the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese (see my earlier post for the atrocities related to that episode).

Zhazidong prison is located on Chongqing’s Gele mountain, a beautiful place which was home to Chiang Kai Shek’s headquarters (which we also visited) and a large training base for his soldiers.

The prison, located in an old mine, is one of two on the mountain, and was used to house Communist prisoners during the civil war.  More controversially, these prisoners were not soldiers but civilians, both men and women, who expressed sympathy or outright support for the communist cause, and had often been involved in spreading pro-communist propaganda.

One of the most dramatic rooms is one where the prisoners were, for want of a less controversial word, tortured, and the tools that were used form a rather formidable display.

The most infamous event at the prison occurred on November 27th 1949, when the KMT secret police set fire to the buildings with the prisoners still inside, but not before systematically executing many of them.  180 prisoners are believed to have been murdered, but 15 managed to escape the bullets and the fire by breaking through the prison’s outer wall.  Images of those that perished can be seen throughout the site, elevated by the current regime to the status of martyrs.  Many of their individual stories are told in the cells, though the English translations are limited.

Some individual prisoners have become well known, such as the youngest victim Song Zhengzong, who was only a year old when he was sent to the prison with his mother, and became so malnourished he was known as ‘little radish’ because his head appeared so big against his body.  Another famous martyr is ‘Sister Jiang’, a communist operative who was captured after being betrayed.  She was sent to Zhazidong, tortured, and eventually killed in the prison.  Her story has even been turned into an opera in recent years.

In 2007, Chongqing suffered its worst floods in a century, but the damage caused by the waters revealed new information about the prison, uncovering the original 19th Century mine shaft entrance, but also revealing tools that had been hidden beneath the floors by prisoners – evidence, so the site interpretation tells us, that they ‘continued their class struggle’ while in prison.

One bizarre element of the site is the array of souvenir stalls at the exit.  While these in themselves are to be expected, and the amount of communist branded merchandise isn't a surprise, given what happened at the site the quantity of replica period guns seemed to me to be in rather bad taste!  The photo below is rather blurry as it was taken in haste for fear of being shouted at by a stallholder! The fact that the guns sit next to statuettes of Sister Jiang and Song Zhengzong only enhances the tackiness.

Ultimately, all politics aside, the site serves as a stark reminder as to just how far some elements of humanity are prepared to go to stifle those with opposing views, and deserves to be better known outside of China.

Three Gorges Museum

I've been to quite a few Chinese museums during my trips, and this was one I had been very keen to visit.  It falls into the category of those brand new architecturally interesting museums that promises to show off the best of modern Chinese museum thinking.

The Three Gorges dam was a rather controversial project, which is now becoming officially accepted as a costly and damaging mistake – though many knew this from the outset. The idea was to control the flow of the
Yangtze river and create one of the world’s largest power stations.  Sadly, in doing this, huge swathes of land, including historic settlements and areas of immense archaeological and natural importance were submerged or destroyed.

Before delving into the museum, I have to mention something that was happening outside the museum as we were entering.  As part of a scheme to 'demonstrate' the professionalism of the police in light of recent corruption scandals, a series of female traffic police were lining up on parade before going out on patrol - no doubt inspired by some official's trip to see the changing of the guard.  The horse riding outfits were a particularly odd touch.  I’ll let you decide for yourself from the pictures below whether you think this is anything more than a publicity stunt!

The museum itself is attractive enough architecturally, and follows a common style for modern Chinese museums in the use of a central ‘well’ with an architectural feature at the top.  The exterior of the museum can be seen to echo that form of a dam.

The content of the museum is arranged around four key subjects, the 3 Gorges, the ancient Ba culture, the development of Chongqing and the fight against Japan in the Second World War.  There are then galleries examining the creative arts – painting, calligraphy, coinage and folk customs.

We started our visit in the galleries looking at the development of Chongqing, and with hindsight we should have moved past these much more quickly than we did, as they contain vast quantities of replicas and reconstructions of fairly mundane 19th and 20th Century things, and this meant that we didn’t get to finish all of the museum’s galleries.

The more artistic and creative displays can be found in the Ba culture galleries and in those looking at the heritage of the Three Gorges and these contrast well against the slightly more restrained social history elements.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Lincoln City – an absolute shower at Bath…

Let’s face facts – if Lincoln City were a racehorse, they would have been taken round the back of the shed and had their brains blown out by now.  And I can’t shake the feeling that perhaps that would be a kindness…

After being beaten by bottom of the league Bath (giving them only their 5th win of the season), City now sit level on points with the top relegation place, only staying out of the red zone by goal difference.  Surely by this time next week we won’t even have that luxury as the teams below us continue to do something that seems beyond City’s feckless squad – actually fighting to avoid the drop.

And therein lies the worst thing for me at the moment.  Just like last season, it feels like we’re going down without a fight from the players or the board.  I’m never one to call for a manager’s head, and I have respect for David Holdsworth, but its clear that he doesn’t know how to turn it around and that the players are just not fired up or driven enough under his leadership.  A manager can be unlucky in a single game, but over 30 or more games the lack of improvement is impossible to ignore.  Although having three managers in a season is ridiculous, it’s surely the only way to have any chance of shaking the apple cart and picking up some precious points by fair means or foul.

That's not to say that I hold Holdsworth or even the board as primarily responsible for this mess.  It's the players who draw their wages and are expected to be professionals doing their job who I would feel the most resentment towards should the worst happen.  It's a sad truth of football though that players will always shirk responsibility when the excrement hits the air circulation device, but a new voice controlling the dressing room is one way to try to instil some collective responsibility.

I could rant on for hours trying to find a way to articulate my feelings at the moment, but I’ll end by simply asking ‘does anybody actually take any enjoyment out of following Lincoln any more?’  Can any Lincoln fan say they go because they actually enjoy the experience, or are we all still there out of a misplaced loyalty to a bunch of useless journeymen who couldn’t care less what league we are playing in? Sadly, I find myself more and more questioning whether the money and emotional strain that go into following the Imps are actually worth it any more.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Roman amphitheatres of London and Lincoln

On a recent trip to London I was able to go and do something that I’d been promising myself I’d do for some time – see the site of the Roman amphitheatre.

Amphitheatres are of course one of the great emotive monuments of the classical world, and people never tire of hearing about the grisly acts that were carried out inside their walls, to the sounds of the Roman mob baying for blood.  Of course, not everything the person in the street believes happened is close to being true, but still…

Compared to the continent and north Africa where many amphitheatres survive to an impressive degree, in Britain they are rather more elusive finds. Only a handful have been conclusively identified, despite our belief that most major settlements would have had one.

Londinium’s amphitheatre was discovered as recently as 1988, and is now incorporated into the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery.  Although I’m not focussing on the Gallery here, I will say that it is home to a small but very high quality art collection, beautifully displayed and well worth a visit.

The London amphitheatre was originally constructed in AD70 (coincidentally the same year that work began on the Colosseum in Rome), but the stone walls that survive are from the replacement built in the early 2nd Century.  It is located very close to London’s Legionary fortress, suggesting that it played a role in both training and entertaining the soldiers as well as the public.  The excavations uncovered brightly coloured wall plaster, marble inlays and finely carved stonework, indicating that the amphitheatre was a prestige building, designed to be a source of pride for the local population, of whom it could seat over 5,000.

One thing I particularly liked about the exhibition was the way that the low light levels and ‘wireframe’ style graphics provide a sense of the layout of the complete structure without compromising the atmosphere.

This leads me on to an issue closer to home (well, closer for me anyway) which is the question of Lincoln’s Roman amphitheatre.  Despite the wealth of knowledge we have about Roman Lincoln, no evidence of an amphitheatre has yet been found.  The presence of the Legionary fortress and the subsequent founding of the Colonia place Lincoln among the most important of Romano-British settlements, and it is surely impossible that an amphitheatre didn’t exist - as settlements such as Chester, Caerleon, Silchester, Cirencester and others had.

The problem is that if the amphitheatre was only ever built in earth and timber, then archaeological traces of it will be ephemeral if they survive at all in the face of later disturbance.  The other examples mentioned above were almost all rebuilt in stone as the civilian settlements grew, as London’s was. If Lincoln's amphitheatre was never given such investment, there has never been a plausible theory as to why that should be the case.

As to where the amphitheatre might have been located, Roman military and urban planning was largely consistent so a position outside of the porta decumana (the western gateway into the upper city – located close to Lincoln Castle’s west gate) might be expected, perhaps where the Lawn complex now stands.

It remains one of the great mysteries of Roman Lincoln, but if London’s amphitheatre is anything to go by, there is still hope that it can be found, and it could become a fantastic addition to the city’s tangible heritage if we do.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Lincoln City – is the unthinkable becoming reality?

After another dismal and aimless performance which saw the mighty Alfreton Town become the latest club to leave Sincil Bank with a swag bag filled with three points, City have to start facing up to a horrific possibility that is looming ever larger - consecutive relegations.

Even the most pessimistic of fans at the start of the season saw a double relegation as beyond contemplation, but that awful reality seems to be edging closer. It feels as if the only talent the Imps have is to plumb ever deeper depths of atrociousness year on year.

The parallels with last season are terrifying:

  • A group of players who think they are better than they are but who have a shocking tendency to lose evenly-balanced matches

  • A manager who is convinced that he doesn't need to change anything he is doing

  • A set of restless fans starting to get angry, which will affect the players performances even more

  • Teams below us with better organisation and a greater desire to win

The silence about our predicament from the manager and board is deafening. Words are cheap, but we're not even getting any fighting talk. Has the entire club gone into atrophy or is there simply such shock about just how fatal the fall through another trapdoor would be that it cannot even be voiced?

The sad truth is that doing nothing will get us nowhere. On paper the players should be good enough. The problem is that they are not playing as a team, they are not organised, and they simply don't ever look fired up enough to chase and harry the opposition into making mistakes.  We stroll around casually, waiting for something to happen rather than fighting for every lost cause and loose ball.  When was the last time the City players left the field looking like they were about to drop from fatigue after running themselves into the ground?

City fans have long viewed the Conference as the ultimate abyss, but now have to face the thought of instantly dropping even lower - to a level so cataclysmically embarrassing it has never really been contemplated.

Even when Boston United dropped down through the leagues, at least they had the excuse that they had been punished for off the field irregularities with points deductions. The Imps would have to live with the fact that they had been relegated through sheer lack of ability.

The time for the ship to be turned around is now, but are the players and manager up to the task?  I begin to fear not…

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The modern museum - too aloof or not aloof enough?

I was rather incredulous when reading a comment piece in the Guardian last week. The article explained how a pair of 13 year old girls had been ejected from Salford Museum apparently for simply being teenagers. This was evidence, according to the author, of museums having an overriding desire to

'protect their precious objects and preserve their cathedral-like 
status. They are worried about how the teenagers will act within
 their highly cultured walls'.

The trouble I had when reading the piece was that it simply didn't equate to any museum I know. Now, I confess I've never been to Salford Museum, but I can't shake the feeling there may be two sides to this particular story (though if the museum genuinely doesn't allow unaccompanied under 16s in then it does seem rather ridiculous).

What struck me most was that the author obviously has a major bugbear about museums and galleries and was not content with concluding that this was an isolated bit of local authority insanity, but indicative of museums in general. Her comment that 'many museums ban mobile phones at the door' seemed an odd one.  Banned? Really? My iPhone is an extension of my arm and I constantly use it in museums to make notes and scan QR tags but have never been spoken to by staff.  The author was also obviously aggrieved that she was once told off for talking on her phone in the Tate - perhaps that experience has scarred her for life?

So is the author's prejudice correct? Are museums merely places for the elite that really don't want the public in, and especially don't welcome children unless they are 'in school uniform, all be-suited and trotting along behind a teacher'? As I said before, that's not the description of any museum I'm familiar with.

The idea of museums not being 'for' the general public is the stereotype of the 'old fashioned museum', but I'd dispute to what extent that museum ever existed in the first place. Sir Henry Miers in 1928 (see my earlier blog post) wrote about the need for museums to be accessible and engaging, and my own museum has letters and press cuttings going back to the start of the 20th Century testifying to hordes of the great unwashed enjoying themselves on museum activity days, of staff giving public talks and tours and of displays designed to be of general rather than specialist appeal.

The modern museum has often taken this to even greater lengths, to the extent that when combined with the loss of specialist curatorial staff, it can often seem as if museums cater for nobody EXCEPT children and families. I'm all for engagement, variety and interactivity in our galleries, but I'd be lying if I didn't confess to an amount of worry that academia has long departed our non-national museums. The sad fact is that while we've rightly made it possible for anybody to come into our museums, visitors wishing to gain anything other than a cursory understanding of the past may be rather disappointed.

The reality is that it's very hard for any museum to truly cater for all tastes - to provide a complex, balanced and academic narrative of a subject, yet also be fun, engaging and interactive for general visitors - all within the parameters of budgets, staffing and the available collections.

Whatever the individual museum, I think the charges of snobbery and aloofness levelled in the article is an unfair and potentially damaging one for the majority of museums doing a frankly damn fine job of educating and entertaining their communities with ever decreasing resources, and the Guardian would be better offering a more balanced opinion on the state of our cultural facilities in future.