Aaron Betsky

High up the mountains in the south-center of China lies the resort town of Jinggangshan. People do not come here to hike the peaks, ski in the winter (too warm), or take to the waters. Instead, they arrive on pilgrimages, their destination a boxy building whose front is a bridge supported by stone-clad columns. In between the columns a series of stairs lead up to a stone monument dedicated to the country’s revolutionary heroes. This is the Jinggang Mountain Museum of the Revolution, which honors those who helped develop the Communist state here.

In 1927, Mao Tse-tung’s army of Communist fighters retreated to this redoubt after they unsuccessfully tried to inspire a sustained insurrection in the city of Changsa. The armies of the Kuomintang, the ruling political party at the time, encircled the site, and a series of skirmishes followed—events that are all dutifully described in the museum. More importantly, this was where Mao decided to base his revolution in the countryside, rather than, as Marxist doctrine had proclaimed, solely among the workers in the cities. That decision changed the nature of the struggle, its outcome, and the appearance of the Chinese state to come.

Aaron Betsky

The Jinggang Mountain Museum of the Revolution

Mao and his compatriots, including Zhou Enlai and Zhu De, lived and worked at Jinggangshan, forming bonds that turned them into a much more effective political and military force than Chang Kai-shek’s battling warlords of the Kuomintang. They developed the Chinese Communist Party's institutions and working methods here, including a legal system, social services, and the idea of forced “reeducation" (a practice that was later horrifically abused)—all of which they put into place when they finally defeated the Kuomintang in 1948.

In essence, Jinggangshan (“shan” means “mountain”) is China’s equivalent of the Hall of Independence, Valley Forge, and Washington, D.C., all rolled into one. But the site is isolated in a small town that has now been taken over by hotels, hostels, gift stores, and other services catering to the millions of visitors who make the pilgrimage. The natural setting is almost an afterthought, just a backdrop to the photographs that the pilgrims take of the monuments lining the road that winds into town.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

Once they come to the museum, many of the visitors dress up in reproductions of the revolutionary army’s blue-gray uniforms, complete with the caps sporting the red star and leg bindings that I was told the army developed so that these on-the-move soldiers could store grain in their trousers. It adds an element of a historic reenactment to the proceedings, as if the long-dead troops were still wandering Jinggang.

Inside the building, visitors wind their way through four sets of galleries in the central hall and then up and across the bridge. Very little happens on the way. The museum’s set pieces are dioramas that depict the bucolic scene as it was before the army arrived, moments such as Zhu’s and Mao’s meeting and the unification of their armies, and reproductions of sites where Mao lived or where early institutions such as registry offices were started. Many of the original artifacts don't survive, because the Communists did not believe in fetishizing such instruments of war and documents of social agreement. A few vintage guns, pieces of clothing, and documents are displayed among endless texts, maps, reproductions of photographs, copies of Mao’s calligraphy, and other evocations of what the place must have been like.

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

What makes the museum startling to an American, in other words, is not so much its content, as that seems largely similar to various historical war museums in both our country and Europe, but rather that it neither evokes the time and place completely, nor helps you understand the way events unfolded here by interpreting the context of the surroundings. The experience is of a collection of images, texts, and scenes that are arranged like a script without a movie or a building plan without a structure.

Yet the site still seems to be effective. I visited with Qingyun Ma, a prominent architect who is a former dean of the School of Architecture at USC, and some of his staff. Ma declared himself “invigorated” by the experience. He pointed out that my search for authenticity or immersion was misguided: “Here, when you make a picture, it is real. That is what matters. What you see here is the reality as we have made it.”

Aaron Betsky
Aaron Betsky

The memorial honors the idea that a group of peasants, largely led by bourgeois intellectuals, could overcome millennia of oppression and a violent and unjust caste system with the most primitive of means. Not surprisingly, the museum doesn't critique this achievement or what followed; the displays end with a paean to Mao’s current successor, President Xi.

Nevertheless, the site serves as a useful case study in that it helps us to understand the fundamentally different attitudes towards space, materials, and iconography that are at work in Chinese architecture. The thinness of the image at the museum and its plasticity (in every sense of the word), the plainness of interior spaces and the scenography of outdoor environments, the focus on iconic images and moments, and, most importantly, the sense of continual revolution and renovation, whether violent or otherwise—all of these things are on display in Jinggang.

Chinese tourists, including architects, are now flocking to America’s historic sites. It would be good if more of us returned the favor, attempting to understand what has shaped and continues to shape that country.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.