CEFC panel at the AAS – Unofficial Memories: Towards an Everyday HIstory of the Mao Era



2014 Annual Conference of the Association for Asian Studies (Philadelphia, 27-30 March)

Panel 197

Saturday 29 March 2014, 8:30-10:30, Room 408-409
Supported by the ANR-RGC project New Approaches to the Mao-Era(CEFC-HKU, 2013-2016)


Since the 1990s, a series of remarkable forms expressing the collective memory of the Mao era has appeared in China: while some of the “memorial” activities developed by former Rightists or Educated Youths are nostalgic and generally uncritical, many other forms of association and sociability are based on the desire to critically confront the past, in order to build a “popular” or “unofficial” (minjian) history of post-1949 China. At the same time as new archival material came to light, oral history projects have flourished around China, throwing new light both on everyday society under Mao and on the way Maoism is remembered by ordinary people. The last 15 years have also seen an outpour of unofficial journals and independent documentary films, made by ordinary individuals thanks to cheap equipment. This collective memory phenomenon has unfolded against a background of official amnesia of the Mao era and explicit restrictions in the official media, academia, and public commemoration, thus implicitly questioning the official narrative promoted by the authorities. A group of scholars from diverse disciplinary backgrounds (history, political science, sociology, film, literature) has begun to investigate various aspects of this phenomenon, ranging from new documents and oral histories of everyday life under Mao, to the contemporary efforts devoted to preserving a non-official memory of the Mao era.

Memory of Maoism and political reform (Jean-Philippe Béja)

During the last 15 years, individual initiatives have become increasingly numerous in the field of memory. Confronting the official amnesia talentedly denounced by Yan Lianke, many victims of the Maoist movements have decided to give their versions of history. There are biological and political motivations to this new wave: witnesses of the period are growing old, and it is their last chance to transmit their experiences to the new generations; but perhaps more importantly, many of them are convinced that only by breaking the CCP’s monopoly on the interpretation of history can a democratic future be envisaged for China. The writing of an alternative history challenges the legitimacy of the regime.

Many victims’ autobiographies have been published either in official journals such as Yanhuang chunqiu 炎黄春秋, which has been at the vanguard of this movement, or in unofficial journals such as Tie Liu’s Wangshi weihen 往事微痕 (Small traces of the Past). Moreover, some publishers print autobiographies at the authors’ expense. The rightists who have yet to be rehabilitated by the Party have been at the vanguard of this movement. We shall try to present a panorama of these initiatives and will dwell on the two above-mentioned journals.

Unofficial history and memories of the Rustication movement (Michel Bonnin)

At a time when the new Chinese leadership includes many former rusticated youth from the Maoist period (the Cultural Revolution or slightly before), most members of that generation (almost twenty million) are retired, about to retire or have lost their employment. In the intellectual, literary and artistic circles, many famous people are also members of this “Lost Generation” (title of my book on the rustication movement, the English version of which has just been published).

Many of its members, “elite” as well as ordinary people, feel the need to save the memory of their experience. They can do it mostly in an unofficial way, since this period remains “sensitive” from an official point of view. Magazines, websites, associations have been booming in all Chinese cities. Many of them are content to record and exchange memories, and to organize cultural and philanthropic activities.
But more and more, former rusticated youth try to reflect on their experience and to record its history, either by publishing documents of the time (including local archives, personal diaries and letters, photos, etc.), by engaging in oral history, compiling chronologies or by inviting historians (including this author) to give lectures and entering into discussion with them.
This paper will present those different efforts (which become more and more numerous as the number of fresh retirees grows) toward the building of a minjian (unofficial) history, which a future official history will not be able to neglect. It will present also some remarkable critical reflections on this movement published recently by a few intellectuals from that generation.

Filming memory in “minjian” documentary films – The Folk Memory Project (Judith Pernin)

Independent documentary film projects dealing with history have recently multiplied in China. While they all seek to shed new lights on the personal experience of historical events during the Mao era, they greatly vary in form, method, and scale. They roughly fall into four categories: individual films relying on investigation and interviews (1966, my time as a red guard, Wu Wenguang; Though I am gone, Hu Jie), personal testimonies and filmic memoirs (He Fengming, Wang Bing), collective projects with amateur or young filmmakers (Folk Memory Project) or participative documentary programs run by independent scholars (Our History).
Launched in 2009 by Wu Wenguang at the Caochangdi workstation, a place devoted to contemporary dance and documentary film, the Folk Memory Project aims at producing various textual and visual records of the historical experience of rural populations, especially during the great famine. Its film section contains today around 20 documentaries and grows every year as the filmmakers return to their “home” villages. These films are characterized by their performative aspect, which is rare in other Chinese documentaries on similar topics. This contribution examines this body of documentaries and the role of performance and performativity in the recording of the collective memory of the famine.

From memory to fiction: creating a literary space for public debate (Sebastian Veg)

Since the scar literature of the early 1980s, fiction and fictionalized autobiography have played an important role in bringing to light the mass violence of the Cultural Revolution. However, these texts remained within a well-defined framework, in which the political system itself was not questioned.
Over the last decade, by contrast, the Chinese literary field has focused more specifically on the 1950s: Yang Xianhui’s Chronicles of Jiabiangou (Tianjin, 2002), was perhaps the pioneering work in dealing with the Anti-rightist movement and a deathly labor camp in Gansu during the great famine. Formally, it is presented as a collection of fictional stories, which allowed it to be published within the PRC, but it is largely based on survivor interviews. Yang Jisheng’s Tombstone (Hong Kong, 2008), is a work of citizen history, but also an essay in its own right, in the same tradition of Chinese reportage literature, based on interviews and documents. Finally, Yan Lianke’s Four Books (Hong Kong, 2010) is a full-fledged fictionalization in a fantastic mode of the famine of the Great Leap Forward in a village on the Yellow River. This paper will develop the hypothesis that, despite their formal differences, these works and their focus on the 1950s represent an attempt to call into question the original legitimacy of the PRC polity and to create a debate within the Chinese-speaking public sphere on the foundations of the current regime.


The CEFC publishes the Quarterly journal China Perspectives/Perspectives chinoises. Potential contributors are welcome to meet the editors at this panel.

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