by Roy Kesey
Followed by Q&A
Begin beside the gift shop at the rear entrance of the mausoleum built for Mao in the center of Tiananmen Square. And have you seen him? Perhaps you were just now hurried past the waxy corpse; perhaps you just now squinted at the light of the xenon lamps, just now learned the alleged dimensional tolerance of the plates that conform the crystal coffin, 10 µm, a tenth the size of a mote of dust, astounding, and you laid your rented bouquet as and when indicated, or perhaps not. Perhaps none of this happened. Today it makes no difference.
From the gift shop walk precisely east to the edge of the Square. Cross the avenue, and follow along what once was West Legation Street and now is Dongxijiaominxiang—the longest hutong in the city. Continue on until you reach a four-storey pillared building between the Beijing Public Security Bureau to the south and the Supreme People's Court to the north. This building, once home to the local branch of what was then called the National City Bank of New York, is now the Beijing Police Museum.
Two types of ticket are for sale. One allows you to look at all of the exhibits. The other costs twice as much, but includes a souvenir pin, a key chain bearing a cartoonish yet resolute police officer, and the opportunity to shoot simulated criminals. Buy the more expensive of the two, and bypass for now the Gift Shop—there will be time later for its decals, its iron-ons, its toys made out of bullet shells.
The museum's hundreds of displays hold some two thousand pieces displayed throughout four halls: the Hall of Beijing Public Security History, the Hall of Criminal Investigation, the Hall of the Functions of Different Police Branches, and the Hall of Police Weapons and Equipment. The lack of any language but Chinese in the vast majority of the descriptive placards indicates the museum's target visitor. The relative lack of context on those same placards, and the nature and order of the objects chosen for display, together hint at what Bruce Doar identifies as the museum's central self-set challenge: presenting the Beijing public security apparatus both as venerable, insofar as it is rooted in the traditions of its predecessors from the Qing dynasty and the KMT, and as a key player in the revolutionary process by which the (superstition-shackled) Qing and the (corrupt) KMT were radically overthrown.
All without mentioning politics.
The only object one is welcome to photograph is in the foyer. It is called the Column to the Soul of the Police. This is a stele of sorts, six meters tall, a shaft bearing among many other things in high relief a phoenix and an equally mythological creature called a xiezhi, a sword and a shield, and at the center an illuminated police badge known as the Eye of the Law. Photograph the stele from whatever distance you are able to manage, and then step in close to focus on the Eye. This is what the guards have come to expect.
The exhibits on the first floor deal mainly with certain kinds of beginnings. There is a handsome Japanese cannon selected from among those that fired a 28-round salute from atop a now-vanished stretch of city wall west of Qianmen to celebrate the formal coming-into-existence of the People's Republic of China. There is a photograph of the 1949 founding of the Public Security Bureau in a dilapidated temple. And there are several exhibits detailing the subsequent rounding-up of individuals identified as stragglers, ruffians, hoodlums and despots. Most of these individuals were Taiwanese, but there were also Japanese, French, and Russian nationals involved. The exhibits generally show photographs of the weapons and other equipment confiscated, the criminals' ID cards, the signed confessions, and the Application Forms for Approval of the Death Penalty.
The decade-long Cultural Revolution fits uncomfortably into the narrative this museum wishes to write, and thus is represented by only two elements. The first is a plaque describing the losses suffered: 74 officers (including the Chief of Police) imprisoned as counter-revolutionaries; 974 sent to labor camps; 9685 driven from the force. The second is a small display of photographs from the Xidan Market bombing in 1968, when sixty officers in the very process of being humiliated by Mao's teenaged Red Guard thugs nonetheless raced to join the search for the bomber, whom they identified as an angry farmer from Liaoning.
Prepare yourself to be unsurprised to see that here the 1989 slaughter that began just up the street in Tiananmen goes wholly unmentioned.
The second floor attempts a typology of common criminals and how they fall. Bai Baoshan, Cao Yanqi, Chen Yinghua: the exhibits include photographs of the victim (close-up), of the crime scene (panoramic), of policemen sitting around a table (mid-range), of policemen squatting in a circle (long-range), and of the criminal as he is arrested (close-up once again). In general the sentencing and follow-through are left to your imagination, but notable too are the displays of Qing-era Royal Guard uniforms and equipment, including edged weapons labeled “Devices for Dismembering the Body,” and a photo of a man on which they are being utilized. He no longer has thigh muscles or pectorals or genitals but is apparently still alive.
Note also the collection of whistles.
Exhibits on the next storey up detail additional public security functions including Fire Control and Cultural Market Administration. Admire the oldest domestic-made fire engine in Beijing, an imposing Qing pump-chariot of bronze and wood. Then stand for a time before the Memorial Wall built to honor officers killed in the line of duty. It is built of red sandstone, carved in low relief, stretches up to form the backdrop of both the third and fourth floors, thus closing the historical exhibits and history itself as told by this museum.
The fourth floor holds mainly weapons, both those used by the police and those confiscated from criminals. There is a magnificent assortment of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, knives, machetes, swords and axes. Elsewhere in the confiscated-materials area there are several decks of cards, and a set of dominos, and a fair amount of fake heroin.
And finally, tucked off to one side, you will see something of a Kids' Area. There are games whereby children are induced to look for fingerprints, and to help the police track down criminals by inputting scruffy likenesses into computers. And beside this Area—or perhaps part of it, this is not entirely clear—is the Video Shooting Range.
This is precisely what it sounds like. Smile at the two female guards who stand watch, and ask if you too might play. They will not smile back, but will take your ticket and step aside. The pistol, a .45, semi-automatic and thick-gripped, will be very slightly lighter than you expect. The show begins, and first you will practice on a stationary target; hold low and to the left for best results. Next, slow-moving bulls-eyes will emerge from behind bushes. Their trajectories are uncomplicated, and your confidence will grow. Then you will be asked to fire at video images of actual humans committing simulated crimes, and in general you will not find this difficult: the crimes are violent and the criminals are armed, will shoot at you first if given the opportunity. Near the end, however, there comes a man who does nothing but cower behind his briefcase. Keep him in your sights. Wait for him to do something rash. He will continue to cower, and you will continue to wait, the pistol growing heavier and heavier in your hand until at last the two guards start shouting for you to shoot him. Look at the guards. Look back at the man. He hasn't moved. Shoot him anyway. Shoot him in the face. Who knows what might happen if you don't.
Roy Kesey is the author of three books: the novella Nothing in the World, a historical guide to the Chinese city of Nanjing, and a short story collection called All Over. His work has appeared in several anthologies including Best American Short Stories, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction. He received a 2010 prose fellowship from the NEA, and his debut novel Pacazo will be published by Dzanc Books in January 2011. He currently lives in Peru with his wife and children. (www.roykesey.com)
Q&A with Roy Kesey
What was your inspiration for this piece?
My introduction to the Beijing Police Museum came courtesy of the need to write a short piece about it for a magazine now known as The Beijinger. I'm glad to have had the chance to revisit it at greater length and layering for Prime Number.
If you were a type of food, what would you be?
I already am. It's just a question of which species gets to me first.
What place on Earth would you advise a visitor from another planet to see?
Certain parts of Detroit, to see if they can handle it.
The influence of the Russian greats on your writing is self-evident, especially Tolstoy. How did that come about?
He speaks to me nightly from the grave. No, really.