• Looking for Ghosts in the Quietest Place in Beijing

    By Jonathan Chatwin

    On my first visit to Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery – China’s national cemetery, and resting place of the founding fathers of the Chinese Communist Party – I had been refused entry at the gate by a zealous teenage guard, who, somewhat incredulous at my pressing for an explanation, had simply observed “Ni shi waiguoren” – “You’re a foreigner” – and walked back to his hut. I thus decided, for my return attempt, to enlist my Chinese friend Christy, who, experience had taught me, could generally talk her way into most places, and out of most situations.

    Christy was not keen, however. She had heard stories about Babaoshan. “My friend knows a girl who was possessed there,” she told me matter-of-factly. The girl had worked in a mall beauty salon near to the cemetery.  Early one evening, the story went, she was sent by her manager to distribute some promotional leaflets on the streets nearby with a male colleague. The two were gone for hours, finally returning at around 11.30pm, to the consternation of their coworkers. Their colleagues noticed that they were both behaving secretively and strangely, and overheard the girl instructing her companion that he was not to tell anyone about their visit to Babaoshan cemetery. Both the boy and the girl refused to leave the salon to go home, even though the mall was now long closed, telling their coworkers that they were waiting for someone.

    “So the manager called the girl’s aunt, who wasn’t surprised by how she was behaving at all,” Christy told me. “She said her niece had been possessed a few times before – she was skinny and weak, and an easy target for a ghost.” The aunt came to collect the girl, and everyone eventually returned home. The next day, both the boy and girl were unable to recall anything that had happened the previous evening.

    “Isn’t that scary?” Christy asked, wide-eyed. Christy is herself rather skinny. I asked her, if she was to be possessed by a Communist leader, whom would she least like it to be? “Lin Biao,” she replied without hesitation. Lin Biao had once been Mao’s heir apparent; a PLA general who had done a great to popularize the Little Red Book, and who, after losing his patron’s favor, had died in a mysterious plane crash that many assume was a politically motivated assassination. She said the name with a look of real fear on her face.

    We agreed that we would visit in the middle of the day, and I promised to do my best to protect Christy from malevolent spirits – and to buy her a coffee afterwards. We prepared a cover story – she was visiting the grave of an uncle, and I was a sympathetic boyfriend – but my young acquaintance was not on duty, and we passed through the gates without attracting any notice. We were the only visitors. As we walked down the drive through the sweltering August heat, Christy whispered to me: “This must be the quietest place in Beijing.”

    The grounds of Babaoshan extend across a large hillside about fourteen kilometres west of Tiananmen Square, and just north of Chang’An Jie, the long thoroughfare that cuts through the center of Beijing. Only a small section of the whole site is given over to the revolutionary cemetery; there is also a public crematorium and a large burial ground for native and overseas Chinese. Altogether, there are now around 60,000 graves at Babaoshan.

    The site was, for centuries, a Daoist temple, occupied mainly by retired eunuchs. It was repurposed by the CCP in 1951, following a proposition by Zhou Enlai; government guidelines instructed that the site was to be dedicated to those “revolutionary soldiers or personnel who had made distinguished contribution to the revolution and had been killed in some form of revolutionary activity or passed away later as a result of illness.”

    The revolutionary cemetery is organized into hierarchical zones, with the ashes of the highest ranking figures interred in grand, private vaults or under imposing headstones at the top of the hill. These include Bo Yibo, one of the “Eight Immortals” of Chinese communism (an octet of revered revolutionary leaders), and father of disgraced former Politburo member, Bo Xilai; Zhu De, founder of the People’s Liberation Army; and even Peng Dehuai, the former Defense Minister purged by Mao and persecuted to death, who had his ashes reinterred at Babaoshan after his eventual rehabilitation in 1978. Space at the revolutionary cemetery remains in high demand; the cemetery receives around 1,000 applications each year, and has had to expand a number of times, despite some longer term residents having been disinterred and returned to their hometowns. The most celebrated figures of the Communist movement are, of course, not at Babaoshan; Mao’s body continues to reside in his mausoleum at Tiananmen Square – providing something of a headache for China’s modern leaders who will, at some point, be faced with a decision as to what happens to his remains in perpetuity – whilst Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping both had their ashes scattered elsewhere; Zhou’s were dispersed at various locations across China, whilst Deng, ever outward-looking, preferred to have his cast into the sea.

    We walked amongst the graves. Cypress trees shaded the dusty path through the headstones; only the oscillating noise of crickets disturbed the peace. The air was utterly still. From the top of the hill, where the grandest memorials sit, neat rows of gravestones cascaded down the incline. “It isn’t scary at all,” Christy said.

    It wasn’t. It was orderly, and human, and tastefully grand in a manner I was unused to in China. The largest gravestones were almost monuments, bespoke carved marble edifices which must have cost enormous sums. “Which do you think is better,” Christy asked me as we looked at one particularly elaborate memorial, “Communism or capitalism?” I said I thought that communism was a good idea that had never worked very well in practice. “I don’t think everybody wants to be the same,” she commented. I agreed, and we stood silently in the heat for a moment.

    “Let’s go and get a Starbucks,” she said.

    Dr. Jonathan Chatwin is a British writer who has lived in, and written on, China. He is the author of Anywhere Out of the World, a literary biography of travel writer Bruce Chatwin. He is currently working on a travelogue based on a journey across Beijing.