Thursday Feature: The World’s Smallest Memorial


Hu Huishan Memorial, front view

  Image: blog.sina.com / zhutaoarchitect

  Hu Huishan, female, from Sichuan province, China.                                                                   Born on 11 October 1992.                                                                                               Perished on May 12 2008 at 14:42 during the Wenchuan earthquake.                                                 Cremated on 2008 May 15.                                                                                                           She dreamt of being a writer, and loved literature.      

Hu Huishan Memorial, aerial view

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Tucked away quietly in a corner of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster in Sichuan, China, is a humble grey structure. Measuring 5 meters long and 3 meters wide, the Hu Huishan Memorial by architect Liu Jiakun is touted as the world’s smallest memorial.

Path leading towards memorial

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Surrounded by a dense cluster of trees, the memorial is nearly hidden from public view. With no visible signage guiding visitors to the site, its existence is solely indicated by the presence of a narrow, winding, pebbled path. It is almost like a secret hideaway. Not the dangerous, dark setting of violent faceoffs, but the enchanting site of happy endings in fairytales.

The small, gabled building surrounded by lush greenery looks all rosy and delightful, except that it is constructed in memory of Hu Huishan, a schoolgirl who had lived only a mere 15 years of life when she perished in the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008.

Wenchuan Earthquake Museum

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Situated a mere 20 meters away from the memorial is the Wenchuan Earthquake Museum, a massive, 5,000 square meter structure with over 30 exhibition halls. Compared to the memorial, the museum is a monstrosity in its scale and form. However, the Wenchuan Earthquake Museum is typical of the 15 large-scale history museums in the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, which makes the nondescript simplicity of the memorial seem shabby in contrast.

View of memorial's interior from entrance

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Commemorated in one section of the Wenchuan Earthquake Museum were the notable persons who perished in the quake. Differing from them, Hu was the most ordinary and negligible civilian of the nearly 80,000 people who perished in the disaster. She did not come from an exceptional family, and had no significant accomplishments at the time of her death.

Interior of memorial

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

While the museum contained 50,000 remaining objects from the quake, the memorial exhibited the personal, everyday items used by Hu, all of which can be taken in at a single glance from the entrance.

Hu Huishan's personal belongings on display

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

These included her photographs, schoolbag and notebook, some of which were dug up from the rubble by her parents.

Hu Huishan's identity card

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

The memorial also included the most common and trivial items, such as Hu’s identity card, and her letters to friends.

Photographs of Hu Huishan

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Looking at the items, narratives of her life begin to construct themselves in our minds. Narratives of a life that was, and could have been.

Hu Huishan's music player

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

In a way, the exhibition of these personal and intimate items from Hu’s life is similar to the curatorial approach undertaken at the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. In the Auschwitz Museum, belongings of war victims, such as glasses, suitcases, and even their artificial limbs, are put on display. It is through the piles upon piles of these personal belongings that the immensity of the war crimes committed against the Jewish race is driven across.

While not as disturbing or gut-wrenching as the display at Auschwitz, the exhibition of Hu’s belongings also focuses on the human dimension of the tragedy. It makes her death more personal and drives it closer to home for the viewer.

Exterior view of memorial

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

If the design of the memorial looks rather unexceptional, this is due to the derivation of its form from the emergency tents that were erected in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Disaster emergency tents

Image: http://www.dedecms.com

Recalling the scene of the disaster zone three days after the quake occurred, the architect Liu said: “I saw emergency tents and red bricks everywhere. The design of the memorial is directly derived from the form and size of the emergency tents. Recycled red bricks from the disaster were also used to construct the memorial, and to pave the path leading to the memorial. All these elements were employed to evoke people’s memories of the earthquake.”

Round skylight of memorial

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Only one detail in the design of the memorial differed from the form of the emergency tents. Due to the space needed for the exhibition articles, the wall openings of the emergency tents were not adopted. Instead, a small, round skylight was installed.

Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., U.S.A.

Image: culturedart.blogspot.com

By designing a memorial for an ordinary girl, the Hu Huishan Memorial functions like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., while surpassing it in certain aspects. The power of the Vietnam War Memorial derives from its acknowledgement of each and every soldier who perished in the war. By engraving their names on its surface, the war casualty is no longer a mere statistic. S/he is an individual with a name.

Portrait of Hu Huishan

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

However, the Hu Huishan Memorial surpasses this, by attaching a face and a personality to the name. By endowing the casualty with a personal narrative through the display of her belongings, the tragedy is made even more impactful.

As Liu has said, the memorial transcends Hu and is dedicated to all the ordinary civilians who perished in the earthquake.

Model of Hu Huishan Memorial

Image: http://www.zhulong.com

Like the Vietnam War Memorial, the simplicity of the Hu Huishan Memorial is anti-monumental. Yet, it has acquired a monumental status with little publicity. Photographs of the Memorial were quickly disseminated online by netizens with its completion in 2009, endowing it with a visibility and presence that far exceeds its size.

Liu Jiakun is the principal architect of Jiakun Architects, a Chengdu-based architectural firm. 

References: Zhulong, Nanfang Weekend, Sina News, Sina Travel, Sohu News, Jianchuan Museum Cluster, U.S. News 

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