Keeping memories alive

By Guo Shuhan (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-17 09:52
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Keeping memories alive

Ji Yong (right), a researcher with Chengdu Archives, poses with the parents of Xie Xinjing, who lost her life in the Sichuan earthquake.

A drawing of the Fuwa mascots of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; photos, a watch, and a cell phone with a damaged screen; a certificate of the Communist Youth League; a prize-winning composition titled Love of Parent; and a taekwondo certificate.

These are some of the things placed neatly in dark brown boxes in a section bearing the number - 365 - at the Chengdu Archives.

These items were once the treasured belongings of 56 young students of Xinjian Primary School and Juyuan Middle School in Dujiangyan, located 100 km from the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan province last May.

"I promised their parents that they could come and see their children whenever they wanted," says Ji Yong, a researcher with Chengdu Archives, who, along with his colleagues, collected the 523 items that belonged to victims of the catastrophe.

The drawing of the Fuwa mascots by a pupil named Yang Ping was brought to the archives by Fu Yan, a journalist with Chengdu Evening News.

One of the first journalists sent to the quake site, Fu saw walls of paintings drawn by the students of Xinjian Primary School, which was on the verge of collapse, and felt she must do something to preserve these art works.

Fu then persuaded several parents to donate the belongings of their dead children. It was no easy task as it is a tradition in rural areas to bury or burn the belongings of the dead.

When Fu took the 40 or so items she had collected to the Chengdu Archives, Ji and his colleagues decided they should be put in a dedicated place at the archives.

"The mission of the archives is keeping history alive," Ji says. "The earthquake shouldn't become just a cold statistic for later generations. Behind the numbers lie once lively lives. We wanted the archives to remember these lives."

This is reportedly the first time an archive is helping preserve the relics of ordinary people who lost their lives in a catastrophe.

It took Ji and his colleagues plenty of persuasion before the grieving parents agreed to donate their children's belongings.

Yan Wenxue, father of 10-year-old boy Yan Zhuoxin, had thrown six bags of his boy's things into the river before Ji found him. Eventually, he donated the photos, watch and cell phone.

Hu Juan's mother burned most of her daughter's things except for the certificate and composition. She had wanted to place them inside Hu's urn and touched her daughter's photo over and over again before finally handing it over.

Many parents have been coming to Chengdu Archives to see their children. Li Qian, a teacher in charge of Class 2 of Grade 4 of Xinjian Primary School, often comes to visit her 28 students, including her own 10-year-old daughter Xie Xinjing.

She likes to go through her daughter's neatly sorted paintings, photos, honorary credentials and taekwondo certificate. This August, Li gave birth to another girl. "When she grows up, I'll bring her to see her elder sister," Li says.

Ji sees the archived material as an expression of the nation's respect for life. "It's quite different from what the victims' relatives might preserve," Ji says. "For earthquake survivors, such an action can at least offer psychological comfort."

"When we talk about the earthquake victims with later generations, we should be able to present them as vivid personalities rather than just in terms of a simple name, age and gender," he says.