Collecting History One Record at a Time : Chengdu Diary A collector takes us inside his warehouse, home to hundreds of thousands of artifacts representing modern Chinese history, with the newest additions being earthquake memorabilia.
NPR logo Collecting History One Record at a Time

Collecting History One Record at a Time

The other day we walked into a warehouse and into the mind of a fanatic collector.

We were visiting the Jianchuan Museum Cluster built by government official-turned-real estate mogul Fan Jianchuan. Construction workers buzz about, finishing up a new earthquake museum that will open on May 12, 2009 at 2:28 pm, the moment the quake struck. We'll have more on that next week.

By May 12, 2009, the anniversary of the earthquake, these halls will be filled with artifacts collected in the month after the quake. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu/NPR

The earthquake museum is one of 25 museums planned for a sprawling campus an hour's drive from Chengdu. Sadly, we had no time to walk through the galleries that already exist, but we did get a drive-by tour with a woman from Fan's office. There's the museum on the War of Resistance Against Japan, with photos of Chinese POWs collected from Japanese archives. There's the museum on Communist Party history, the Long March and all. There's the museum on the Flying Tigers, the only museum in China dedicated to the US military. Staff dressed in Sichuan military uniforms stand guard outside each.

Two weeks before its opening, the earthquake museum was still just a shell, so we asked to see the warehouse where artifacts are stored. As we stood outside waiting for someone to open the oversized metal doors, we had no idea what we were in for.

Fan Jianchuan has collected more than 50,000 records from the Cultural Revolution era. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

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Andrea Hsu/NPR

In several cavernous rooms are tables and tables of newspapers, shelf after shelf of housewares - teapots and mugs, wash basins and bowls, stacks of mirrors, some with images of Mao, and more than 50,000 record albums, all from the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Except for the newspapers, these are things that I remember seeing in people's homes in the 1980s and 90s and for sale in Beijing's dirt market in the late 90s. But seeing these things by the thousands was a whole different experience.

One of the major campaigns of the Cultural Revolution was the Destruction of the Four Olds: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Just about anything pre-1949 was subject to destruction.

Fan tells us he collects so that people will remember.