The sacred lake where Chinese communists vow to sacrifice all for the party

Thousands come to Nanhu Lake and its museum daily, a testament to swelling Chinese nationalism under President Xi Jinping

A visitor with a Chinese national flag usings a virtual reality headset in the Nanhu Revolutionary Memorial Hall  in Jiaxing, east China.The museum and forested grounds by Nanhu Lake have become a spiritual retreat for the party’s more than 90m members. Photograph: Yan Cong/The New York Times

A visitor with a Chinese national flag usings a virtual reality headset in the Nanhu Revolutionary Memorial Hall in Jiaxing, east China.The museum and forested grounds by Nanhu Lake have become a spiritual retreat for the party’s more than 90m members. Photograph: Yan Cong/The New York Times

 

He was anxious about China’s trade war with the US. He was worried about the rise of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. So Liu Yuanrong, a lifelong member of the Chinese Communist Party, followed the advice of a friend: go to the lake.

That would be Nanhu Lake, a cradle of Chinese communism in eastern China that in recent years has become a spiritual retreat for the party’s more than 90 million members.

There, near a forest of pine trees one recent day, Liu straightened his back, furrowed his brow and threw his fist triumphantly into the air.

“I vow to devote my life to defending communism,” said Liu, a 57-year-old electronics trader from southern China, reciting a party oath. “I vow to sacrifice everything for the party.”

Nanhu Lake, which played host to the Chinese Communist Party’s first congress nearly a century ago, has long been a staple of communist lore.

In the strongman era of President Xi Jinping, the lake has gained new prominence as a place for throngs of patriotic tourists – students, hospital workers and technology entrepreneurs among them – to declare their love for the party and Xi.

Thousands of people come to Nanhu Lake and its museum, Nanhu Revolutionary Memorial Hall, each day, according to a report from China’s news agency, a testament to swelling nationalism in China under Xi, whose visit to the lake two years ago inspired a wave of tourism. Last year the lake had over a million visitors.

“We think this place is sacred,” says Yang Jinping, a stay-at-home mother.

As China grapples with trade tensions with the US and a slowing economy, many come to the lake in search of an emotional lift. They sing patriotic songs, recite Xi’s slogans about the “Chinese dream”, and reminisce about revolutionary heroes.

“We want to show our gratitude to the party,” Liu says, “and to remember that China can only be strong with a strong party.”

Oath of loyalty

The experience of the visit culminates at a 161ft long wall emblazoned with the party’s hammer-and-sickle flag, where visitors clench their fists and recite an oath of loyalty to the party, a communist ritual that has come back into fashion under Xi, who also serves as the party’s chairman.

In 1921, Mao Zedong and a small group of revolutionaries held the party’s first congress on a boat in the middle of the lake after police chased them out of Shanghai, about 60 miles northeast. Across China the so-called “red boat” is well known.

At the museum at the lake, which started construction when Xi was the top party official here in Zhejiang province, a selective retelling of party history is on display.

Inside there are exhibitions about China’s “century of national humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, the spread of Marxism in China, and Mao’s founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

A glittering display on the top floor is devoted to Xi, China’s most influential leader since Mao. His speeches play on a loop, and his slogans are plastered across the walls, including one that says, “lead the great renewal of the Chinese nation”.

A gift shop sells Communist Party pins, commemorative coins and certificates of party membership. However, the most prized souvenir is a photo by the so-called oath wall outside.

Xi, who rose to power in 2012, has led a renewed interest in party history and a revival of its traditions, including the oath, part of his efforts to extend the party’s domination over daily life in China. Critics say Xi is bringing China back to the days of one-man rule and fuelling a personality cult.

Giant flag

During a tour of revolutionary sites in 2017, Xi and the other six members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest decision-making body, visited a Shanghai memorial, where Xi led a recitation of a party oath before a giant flag. The Politburo members, standing solemnly, raised their fists in unison.

Then the leaders went to Nanhu Lake, where they visited a replica of the boat where Mao and the other founders of the party held their meeting. Xi, speaking after the visit, described the lake as one of the places where “the Chinese Communist Party’s dream set sail”.

“Our party was born here, our journey began here, and our rule of the country all dates back to here,” Xi said.

For many visitors Xi is the main draw. Liu Yunlai, a 20-year-old university student, recently led two friends on a tour of the museum and the oath wall, stopping to try on virtual reality glasses that showed the inside of the boats used during the 1921 party meeting. It was Liu Yunlai’s second visit in the span of a few weeks, because, he said, he wanted to retrace Xi’s footsteps.

“Ever since Uncle Xi came to power China has seen earth-shattering changes,” Liu Yunlai said, using a popular nickname for Xi.

“I’m attracted by the spirit of the communists,” he added. “It’s like a faith. Others believe in Buddhism or Taoism. We believe in communism.” – New York Times