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A mural in Shantou, China, at the country's only Cultural Revolution museum lists the names of 4,000 people from the villages surrounding the city who died during that era.

yang junpo The Globe and Mail

To find the only museum in China that commemorates the millions who died during the decade-long horror of the Cultural Revolution, you have to drive 45 minutes on the main road outside this little-known port city in the country's southeast, then another three kilometres through a patch of banana and palm trees before you come to a sombre gate amid the foliage.

"Between heaven and earth, such disastrous history only exists here," reads the blue calligraphy running down one side of the grey concrete frame. The other side adds: "The most important thing in the world is the ability to judge what is right and wrong."

There are no other signs in Shantou or anywhere nearby that might help a visitor find the country's only Cultural Revolution museum. Five years after it was opened, the existence of this testimony to Mao's murderous excesses - and a period during which scholars estimate three million people died (some put the figure far higher) and 10 times that many were persecuted - is a well-kept secret.

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"Not many people come here," acknowledged Peng Qian, the museum's 78-year-old founder and volunteer curator. "Why? Because we're not allowed to publicize ourselves and there's no news allowed about it on television or radio either. There are people living in Shantou who don't know about us."

That the museum is allowed to exist at the same time that it is barred from publicizing itself illustrates the complicated relationship China and the ruling Communist Party has with its recent past.

That it ever opened is a tribute to Mr. Peng's fearless determination to mark an era in which he himself was subjected to more than 30 "criticism sessions" and sentenced to death at least once. "I learned that there was a list of five people who it was recommended should be executed, and this list was sent to the higher authorities. I was the second name on that list. I never found out why they didn't do it."

Despite his experience, Mr. Peng remained in the Communist Party and - after Mao's death, and the posthumous renunciation of his excesses by his successor Deng Xiaoping - he eventually rose to become deputy mayor of Shantou, a manufacturing hub of five million people in China's Guangdong province.

While in office, he learned of the existence of a tomb in Pagoda Mountain Park where 22 early victims of the Cultural Revolution had been buried together during the violence. He decided they should be memorialized, and the circumstances explained "so that the new generation would understand what happened."

Turning Pagoda Mountain Park into a full-on Cultural Revolution museum became an obsession after Mr. Peng retired from office in 1999. Ignoring warnings from friends and other officials - who worried he would again fall afoul of those in power if he pushed ahead with his idea - he began fundraising, raising nearly $3-million for the site from affluent friends, many of them fellow survivors.

"Generally speaking, my friends and colleagues were supportive, but some of them were afraid. They said it was better not to do this. They were afraid of again being attacked and criticized," Mr. Peng said as he sat in a pagoda at the heart of the park that is walled with dark images of Mao's Red Guards, and the criticism sessions, re-education camps and executions that marked that time. He added with a smile: "I don't really care if they punish me. I have already lived 40 years past my death sentence."

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What Mr. Peng built is in many ways a local museum, primarily recording the nightmare inflicted on this one corner of China. Strolling through Pagoda Mountain Park, a serene and hilly place wrapped around a small lake, is a lesson in how even neighbours and relatives could be turned against each other over spurious accusations that a person or a village had gone counter-revolutionary. The park is filled with statues to prominent local victims, as well as a black mural listing the names of more than 4,000 dead, all of them from the villages bordering the park.

There are only occasional attempts to capture the wider horror of what happened across China between 1966, when Mao unleashed a class war against those seen as harbouring bourgeois sympathies, and the chairman's death in 1979. One mural lists 304 types of counter-revolutionary crimes that a person could be charged with. Another black wall is etched with descriptions of some 100 types of torture that were used during questioning and punishment.

A large mural inside the main gate depicts Mao on one side, overseeing the madness of that time, facing his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who was himself purged during the Cultural Revolution and later condemned it. A statue of Liu Shaoqi, a former president and one-time comrade-in-arms of Mao's who was one of the Cultural Revolution's first victims, stands in the middle of the park.

Despite the official conclusion reached in 1981 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party that the Cultural Revolution had been an "error" for which Mao bore responsibility, historians say today's leaders of the Communist Party are still afraid to deal openly with what happened.

"The Cultural Revolution is a still sensitive topic," said Song Rushan, a retired professor who last year finished a decade-long effort to compile a day-by-day account of what happened in China between 1969 and 1979.

When his 712-page tome - the Dictionary of Cultural Revolution Events - was ready, Mr. Song took it to Hong Kong to be published, knowing it would never get past the censors in mainland China. Other than Hong Kong, the only place it's for sale is the souvenir store at the Cultural Revolution Museum in Shantou. "Some of the people who were Red Guards then are in power now," Mr. Song explains.

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Pagoda Mountain Park is nearly empty on a sunny summer day as Mr. Peng wanders through his outdoor museum. The only visitors are a few young couples looking for a quiet place to be alone. Asked about the memorials around them, they shrug in confusion. "I don't know very much about it," said one young man, a migrant worker from Henan province who was taking a day off with his girlfriend. He said the Cultural Revolution was only briefly mentioned in his high school textbooks.

"I used to be a deputy mayor, but I still don't understand how our senior leadership thinks. They are afraid that if research into the Cultural Revolution goes forward, it would cause people to think about what happened and to criticize (the Party), which would strike at their ability to rule," he said. "I totally agree with a government devoting all its attention to the economy and improving people's lives. But I disagree with the policy of trying to make 1.3 billion people forget the Cultural Revolution and everything that happened."

Rather than a challenge to the Communist Party's grip on power, Mr. Peng sees his museum as a public service, citizens stepping in to fill a void left by the government. Still, he says he won't be satisfied with what he's done until he's free to advertise the museum around China and to bring schoolchildren here on tours.

"If, for the sake of building this museum, I am taken away and killed by the Communist Party of China, I think I would close my eyes and rest knowing that I did something good for the country and the party."

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