A cemetery where history comes alive

16:27, December 29, 2009      

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Babaoshan literally translates as Eight Treasure Mountain. This area of western Beijing is home to China's most famous cemetery - Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. The cemetery sits on the site of what was a 14th century Taoist temple. The temple was built to honour General Gang Bing, a Ming Dynasty soldier who castrated himself in a show of obedience to his emperor - Emperor Yongle, who ruled China from 1402 to 1424.

Later, the temple became a final resting place for Imperial concubines and eunuchs, but since the founding of the modern cemetery in 1951, it has been the heroes of the Communist Revolution and those who have offered great service to the government who have won the right to lie here. Among them are people such as Wang Guangmei, a politician, philanthropist and former First Lady who died in 2006. Wang was the wife of Liu Shaoqi, who served as the President of the People's Republic of China from 1959-1968. But more controversial figures also had graves here. China's last emperor, Puyi, had his ashes placed here after his death in 1967. But, in 1995, Puyi's widow had his ashes moved to another cemetery, out near the tombs of other Qing Dynasty emperors.

Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery is split into different sections, with each person having been accorded what has been deemed an appropriate location and tomb size for their rank or contribution to the revolutionary cause. Unfortunately, the section that holds the ashes or bodies of the highest ranking leaders of China is off limits to ordinary visitors.

One cannot help but be moved by a sense of great history when strolling among the tombs of the martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the Communist cause. Photographs of men and women peer from the tombstones. I was impressed by how well kept the cemetery is, with many of the graves being adorned with brightly-coloured flowers.

Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery feels somewhat like a grand garden with its shrubbery neatly planted along pathways that wind in and around the graves. I was fascinated by the tombs of various artists, poets, musicians and politicians.

Among the graves were those of people such as the great Marxist and revolutionist Ren Bishi, who died in 1950. His grave was, in fact, the first grave at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. Other famous Chinese lying here include the much-loved artist Xu Beihong who died in 1953. Xu, who is renowned for his ink paintings of horses and birds, was one of the first Chinese artists to push for artistic expressions that reflected the spirit of a new modern China at the beginning of the 20th century. I also saw the grave of the poet and academic, Wen Yiduo, who was assassinated by the Kuomintang secret agents in Kunming in 1946.

However, I was particularly intrigued to see the graves of so many foreigners here, and learn something about their connections with China. I saw the graves of Indonesians, Vietnamese, Russians, Europeans and Americans, all who had embraced Communist ideologies. Some of these foreigners had also been close to Mao Zedong and other influential Chinese leaders. Among the graves were those of American journalists Agnes Smedley and Anna Louise Strong, as well as the resting place of the American medical doctor George Hatem.

Between 1938 and 1941, Agnes Smedley visited both Communist and Kuomintang forces in the war zone. The American covered what was the longest tour of the Chinese war front by any foreign correspondent, male or female. During her time in Shanghai, she had an affair with Richard Sorge, the Russian spymaster, and was herself later accused of being a spy by her own countrymen. After the war, Smedley returned to the U.S., but after being accused of espionage she moved to Britain in 1949. She died in the U.K. the following year, and later her ashes were brought to Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery.

Israel Epstein, meanwhile, was a Pole who had been raised in China from the age of two. His parents considered China a safe haven after being on the receiving end of anti-Semitism elsewhere. In 1957, while in his early forties, Epstein became a Chinese citizen, and seven years later he became a member of the Communist Party of China. During the Cultural Revolution Epstein was accused of plotting against Zhou Enlai and was imprisoned in 1968. He was subjected to solitary confinement, but on his release, Zhou Enlai apologized, and Epstein had all his privileges restored. Epstein remained loyal to the ideals of Communism right up to his death in 2005. His funeral ceremony was attended by both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

I spent a whole afternoon strolling among the graves at Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery. I was filled with a sense that the graves here not only hold the remains of some very special people, but also a treasure trove of stories and memories of what had been the momentous struggles of those lying here, and during what was the most turbulent period of history for both China and much of the world.

Source: CRI online
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