China’s ideologues determine and direct what their citizens are allowed to know and think about the history of the People’s Republic. Since taking office, party leader Xi Jinping has scaled back the critical examination of the past that had been tolerated for three decades and condemned it as historical nihilism. School textbooks have been rewritten, media and the Internet, art, culture, and research have been censored, and past events have been reinterpreted or concealed. Nevertheless, there are many Chinese who have evaded control. They have their own archives at home with evidence and sources of the real happenings in the People’s Republic. They are lovers of contemporary history.
Inadvertently, the CP helped them complete their collections. Some 15 years after Mao’s death, ministries, courts, libraries, publishing houses, and even security agencies began to sell off what they considered to be superfluous items stored in archives and “ideological poison cabinets.” Among them: banned books, manuscripts, documents, pamphlets. Once forbidden and hidden treasures ended up at flea markets of the big cities. These became treasure troves for historians, amateur researchers, and passionate collectors, creating a kind of involuntary Chinese coming to terms with the past.
The postcards from abroad lay in packets among other collectibles on a stand at the Beijing flea market. They were stamped in Switzerland and showed photos of a boy from Tibet. German and English inscriptions demanded: “Freedom for the world’s youngest political prisoner.”
The letters of solidarity came from international Tibet initiatives, which called on citizens in Europe to express their solidarity with the boy by sending postcards to Beijing. The addressee was the then-party leader Jiang Zemin. He never got to see the postcards. The police stored them in their archives.
They accused China of abducting seven-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in May 1995, just days after the Dalai Lama recognized him as the reincarnation of the late 10th Panchen Lama. The CP condemned his religious choice, appointing another boy as the designated Panchen Lama successor and making the true successor disappear.
The whereabouts of the now 35-year-old are considered a state secret. The replacement lama appointed by Beijing, whom Tibetan believers continue to call the “wrong boy,” is allowed to visit Tibet’s holy monasteries on religious holidays, where the monks must worship him as the 11th Panchen Lama.
Gedhun’s state kidnapping (China.Table reported) and Beijing’s role in it have always been kept quiet publicly. In 2004, I saw the cards on display at a Beijing flea market for the first time. He could get a lot more of them, said the seller, who apparently didn’t even know who the boy was, but noticed my interest. Such a card costs 20 yuan. There was a discount for ten or more. He would not say anything about where they came from. One of the ten rules for Beijing’s big flea markets, like the Panjiayuan (潘家园) or the Bao Guosi (报国寺) temple market was: “Where things come from is none of the buyers’ business” (古玩交易卖家东西来自何方与买家无关).
The postcards that suddenly appeared answered the question of what happened to the many thousands of Amnesty petitions sent annually from Europe to China’s leaders. They were not destroyed but kept by the authorities.
But when Beijing ministries, institutes, and courts planned new buildings and moved around the year 2000, they cleared out their overflowing evidence rooms and state archives. Authorities parted with useless stocks of yellowing documents by the sackful. From banned, once cultural revolutionary cartoons against Mao’s inner-party enemies, to confiscated regime-critical pamphlets. Even internally classified old party resolutions, former arrest warrants and sentences, handwritten self-criticisms, or letters of denunciation were disposed of. They should have been shredded. Clever flea market dealers with connections took advantage of rampant corruption, official disinterest, and a lack of controls and bought them from the authorities, often at the price of their paperweight.
Everything that seemed useless was apparently discarded. Among them were piles of canceled leaflets from the propaganda war between the People’s Republic and Taiwan. Starting in the late 1950s, Beijing had the Taiwanese island of Qinmen bombed and repeatedly shot with propaganda shells full of leaflets. Apparently, Beijing ministries kept the receipts. These ended up in flea markets, along with leaflets dropped on China from Taiwan. Mainland citizens loyal to the state picked them up and delivered them. I saw the leaflets lying on a stand: One called on Taiwan’s islanders to surrender, the other on China’s peasants to overthrow the Mao regime.
The offer was new and met with demand: Private flea markets, which had been banned after the founding of the People’s Republic, only slowly re-emerged after Mao’s death. At first, they offered junk and old bicycle parts, tools and sewing machines. Around 1980, the first Beijing bird and flower market appeared.
Soon, there was no stopping them. Urban society became more prosperous, controls decreased. Chinese warmed up again to their traditional hobby of collecting antiques, scroll paintings, porcelain, pearls, or jade. Antique and art markets boomed.
Aside from a passion for valuable antiques, which more often turned out to be fake, enthusiasts began to take an interest in objects from their own contemporary history for the first time. They collected everything, from Mao writings and devotional objects, posters and buttons, art and kitsch from the Cultural Revolution, and China’s rationing system, to private diaries and family letters.
Old photos were also in demand. I once found photographs of Mao receiving German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and his wife Loki at his Zhongnanhai residence on October 30, 1975. The original prints had apparently been discarded because the German guest of honor was waiting with Mrs. Loki on a bench in the anteroom while Mao stood and just greeted the German ambassador at the time, Rolf Friedemann Pauls, who accompanied Schmidt. When I met Helmut Schmidt later in Beijing, I gave him one of the photos as a gift.
Some collectors specialized on the impact of Mao’s political campaigns on China, from land reform, the Great Leap Forward, to the Cultural Revolution. They found new documents in flea markets about famines, never-reported natural disasters and floods, and brutal persecution. Or Red Guard newspapers that condemned, for example, Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father. Even internal documents and photos about the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989, were on offer.
The party lost control of its narrative on history. Flea markets thus became, overnight, the only places in China that openly revealed political secrets and also provided evidence to back them up. For Beijing, it was a legal gray area.
The pandemic ruined flea markets
While museums dedicated to the history of the Cultural Revolution had to close again, and the Foreign Ministry had access to its once-open historical archives restricted once more, collectors and researchers were able to continue making discoveries on Beijing’s flea markets until shortly before the pandemic. The same was true in dozens of Chinese metropolises, where collectors’ markets sprang up everywhere, from Shanghai (上海城隍庙古玩市场), via Chengdu (成都送仙桥古玩艺术城), Wuhan (武汉文物市场) to Xi’an (西安古玩城) and Dalian (大连古文化市场).
Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market was allowed to call itself one of the ten largest cultural markets in the country as early as 2004, hosting up to 4000 traders. On weekends, up to 100,000 visitors came, including thousands of foreign tourists. The flea market became a trademark of the capital, just like the Great Wall or the Peking duck.
Like all antique markets, the Panjiayuan was brought to the “brink of collapse” by Covid. The effects of the economic slowdown in China, the consequences of the trade war, and the new epidemic that led to the standstill in tourism hit the market threefold.
Sellers sought ways out of their misery online. In November 2020, the “Panjiayuan Douyin E-Commerce Livestream Base” (潘家园电商直播基地), a state-owned cultural enterprise, was formed to build a new trading center for cultural goods. Panjiayuan’s antique dealers moved into small salesrooms online. From there, they market their goods via live stream, supported by Douyin, the Chinese parent of TikTok. The state-owned cultural agency woos customers with its “one-stop service,” offering them quality control, authenticity testing, packaging to logistics. As of early 2022, 561 Panjiayuan merchants registered their businesses. By the end of October, it was 1,060 traders who are allowed to sell 30 types of “approved cultural goods” – including jade articles, jewels, pearls, and mahogany wood. This has little to do with a flea market. Contemporary history is also no longer included. The party will be pleased.