New Approaches to the Mao Era (1949-1976)

Everyday History and Unofficial Memory


Project description

New Approaches to the Mao Era is a collaborative research project presented by a team of scholars from the University of Hong Kong and the CEFC, and funded under a joint scheme by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) and Hong Kong’s Research Grant Council (RGC). The program starts in March 2013 and runs for 3 years until February 2016. This project aims to lift the disciplinary barriers between various approaches to the unofficial history of the Mao era, as well as breaking new ground in each of the disciplinary areas (access to new archives; field work with hitherto undocumented citizen memory groups). Besides supporting the participants’ own research, this program aims at disseminating and exchanging scholarly findings by means of public workshops, conferences and publications. A calendar of scientific events related to this program will be announced on the CEFC website.


The advent of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 counts as one of the most momentous changes in the history of the twentieth century, yet there remains much to be discovered about what happened to people of all walks of life under Mao Zedong. One reason is that for close to half a century scholars have had to rely on official or semi-official sources. Another is that most China specialists, with the advent of a more open regime under Deng Xiaoping, shifted their interests away from the early decades towards more recent developments. But a quiet revolution has been taking place in the archives, transforming the way in which scholars in the humanities and the social sciences can research China under Mao. Not dissimilar to the opening of once-closed Russian archives in the early 1990s, the gradual declassification of vast amounts of original archival material is bound to generate fresh research on the PRC. Documents such as surveys of working conditions in the countryside, progress reports, investigations into cases of abuse, inquiries compiled by working groups, secret opinion surveys or letters of complaint written by ordinary people, allow us to build up, for the first time, an everyday history of the momentous changes that took place under Mao.

In parallel, since the 1990s, a series of remarkable forms expressing the collective memory of the Mao era has appeared in China, ranging from “Cultural Revolution restaurants” to flea markets selling revolutionary icons and questionable Mao “antiques.” This collective memory phenomenon is all the more noteworthy as it has unfolded against a background of official amnesia of the Mao era and explicit restrictions in the official media, academia, and public commemoration. Therefore this outpour of new forms of “popular” or “unofficial” memory implicitly questions the official narrative promoted by the authorities. While some of its expressions may seem anecdotal, it has also produced a crop of unofficial testimonies and investigative studies, on the margins of official channels. These works by amateur historians are of great interest for research and are almost unknown outside the circles they are written in. Some are about the Educated Youth movement during the Cultural Revolution, other pertain to the political movements of the 1950s, such as the Anti-Rightist movement and the Great Leap Forward.

In a similar way, literature, in particular the genre known as reportage practiced by investigative writers like Liu Binyan, has played a key role in documenting alternative views of everyday life in the Maoist era. While writers of the “scar literature” school of the 1980s were easily co-opted into official narratives of the Cultural Revolution, in recent years more radical works have appeared, documenting the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution, by essayist or writers like Liao Yiwu (on the persecution of Christians after 1949; on the rural collectivization), Zhang Yihe (on the anti-rightist movement), Dai Qing (on the 1950s and Zhang Donsun) or Yang Xianhui (on the anti-rightist movement). Unofficial journals like Lao Zhaopian (Old Photographs, edited by Ding Dong) or Hei wulei (The Five black categories, edited by Jiao Guobiao) are disseminated via the internet. The last 15 years have seen an outpour of independent documentary films, made by ordinary individuals thanks to cheap equipment, documenting family histories and personal memories of various moments in the Mao era, from collectivization to the Cultural Revolution (Hu Jie, Ai Xiaoming). These literary or filmic works, made by ordinary citizens, and published or disseminated through various channels including the internet, also contribute to challenging the existing historiography.

This challenge to history has deep-reaching consequences for a regime whose legitimacy is grounded in the “correct” understanding of history. Right after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping and other central leaders encouraged new interpretations of history in order to legitimize their policy of opening up and reforms. In this way they encouraged ordinary citizens to reflect on the past and to present their understanding of the three bygone decades, giving rise to an outburst of protests in the democracy wall movement. Not long after, however, in 1981, the Party put an end to these debates by adopting a resolution “On several points of history” which once again reestablished the Party’s monopoly on historiography. In this perspective, the struggle for the interpretation of history has potentially major implications for the relations between society and the Chinese Party-state.

Research team

Project Coordinators

Frank Dikötter (HKU)

Frank Dikötter pioneered multi-archival research in mainland China with his book on the history of punishment and the prison published in 2002 by Columbia University Press. He has closely tracked changes in the accessibility of communist party archives, leading, for instance, to the first article using hitherto closed material on the labour camp system of the PRC. More recently he has been one of the first to capitalise on the opening of post-1949 collections by collecting thousands of documents—uncensored speeches by top leaders, minutes of party meetings, secret reports, police investigations, opinion surveys, emergency telegrams, confessions by county and provincial leaders, among others—from twenty county, five city and ten provincial archives as part of two RGC-funded projects on everyday life in China from 1949 to 1962. This array of fresh evidence has allowed him to cast new light on the Great Leap Forward by bringing in the experiences of people of all walks of life in a richly textured social history which was published in September 2010 by Bloomsbury as Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe. Reviewed in dozens of venues, this book was among the 2010 Books of the Year selected by The Economist, The Independent, the Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard, The Telegraph, the New Statesman and the BBC History Magazine. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the UK’s most prestigious prize for non-fiction.

Personal page: http://www.history.hku.hk/people/staff-frank-dikotter.html

Website: http://www.frankdikotter.com/

Sebastian Veg (CEFC)

Sebastian Veg, EHESS research professor, currently researcher and director of the CEFC, has recently worked on contemporary Chinese literature and film as part of a more general intellectual reassessment of the Mao era in post-1989 China. He edited a special feature ofChina Perspectives on this topic in 2007, entitled China and its Past: Return, Reinvention, Forgetting, to which he also contributed a survey of literature devoted to the Cultural Revolution. In particular, his work has focused on Wang Xiaobo’s challenge to the writing of the Cultural Revolution. In recent years, he has researched reportage literature devoted to the anti-Rightist movement, in particular Yang Xianhui’s volume Chronicles of Jianbiangou and its filmic offshoots, He Fengming and The Ditch by independent director Wang Bing.

Personal page: https://www.cefc.com.hk/staff/sebastian-veg/


Jean-Philippe Béja

As a specialist in Political sciences, Jean-Philippe Béja, Senior Researcher at the CERI-Sciences-Po, Paris, currently posted to the CEFC, has been working on the relations between State and Society, specializing in the relations between intellectuals and the State, and the movement for democracy. One of his findings is that, due to the continued monopoly on the writing of history by the Communist Party, it is impossible for pro-democracy forces to draw the lessons of past experiences. This inability has represented a huge impediment for structuring an opposition force. He has drawn attention to the link between the struggle against the monopoly on history and democratization (À la recherche d’une ombre chinoise, 2004). Besides, he has been working for years with former victims of Maoist movements who have put together their visions of the past. These unofficial actors are convinced that by offering alternative visions of history, they work towards the diversification of historical narratives, and therefore towards the pluralization of society, a pre-requisite to democratization. He has recently co-organized two international conferences, one held at the CERI, Paris, in 2009 on “Narratives of the past and Democratization” with the founders of the Russian Organization “Memorial” and one organized in Hong Kong in 2009 with the Chinese University of Hong Kong and East China Normal University on the 1950s.

Personal page: https://www.cefc.com.hk/staff/jean-philippe-beja/

Michel Bonnin

Michel Bonnin, Professor at the EHESS Paris, currently seconded to the Sino-French Academic Centre at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and an associate researcher at the CEFC (of which he is the founder) is an internationally renowned expert on the Cultural Revolution, and one of the only ones to have investigated it from the viewpoint not only of Red Guards or cadres, but also of “ordinary people”, in his case the Educated Youths sent to the countryside, as early as 1978 in a book based on interviews with refugees entitled Avoir 20 ans en Chine …à la campagne. His groundbreaking work Lost Generation, published in French in 2004 (Génération perdue, Éd. de l’EHESS), has since been translated into Chinese and published in Hong Kong and Beijing, and the English edition is currently in press. He has in recent years been working on the importance of memory in constructing a critical history of the Educated Youth movement and the Cultural Revolution in general. His investigations into the identity construction of the Educated Youth generation and political significance of the contrast between official amnesia and unofficial commemoration of the Mao era has been published in China Perspectives and other journals and edited volumes.

Personal page: http://cecmc.ehess.fr/index.php?2588

Judith Pernin

Judith Pernin is a postdoctoral researcher at the CEFC, working on Chinese documentary film. She defended her PhD dissertation on “independent” documentary film and practices in November 2012 at the EHESS (School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences, Paris). Under the present project, she will investigate the field of independent Chinese documentary films addressing the question of the Mao era through memory.

Personal page: https://www.cefc.com.hk/staff/judith-pernin/


Aihe WANG, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong, is the editor of a thirteen-volume catalogue documenting the artworks of the underground Wuming group during the Cultural Revolution. She has also published several separate studies of the group that provide a fresh account of little known underground art communities, modifying our understanding of the Mao era and renewing our debates about Chinese socialism, revolution, and authoritarianism.

Personal pages: http://web.chinese.hku.hk/staff/c1h20b.html



International Conference: Popular Memory of the Mao Era and its Impact on History

For more information, please click here.

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

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)


Memory of Maoism and political reform (Jean-Philippe Béja)
Unofficial history and memories of the Rustication movement (Michel Bonnin)
Filming memory in “minjian” documentary films (Judith Pernin)
From memory to fiction: creating a literary space for public debate (Sebastian Veg)

For more information about the presentations, please click here.

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.

Filming the Memory of the Great Famine-Wu Wenguang’s Folk Memory Project

Date: January 14 (Tuesday) 2 pm to 6 pm
Venue: Room 434, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus, HKU

Organizers: Department of Comparative Literature
and French Centre for Research on Contemporary
China (CEFC)

Supported by the ANR-RGC project New Approaches to the Mao Era (CEFC – HKU).

Participants: Wu Wenguang, Zou Xueping, Luo Bing, Zhang Mengqi

Panelists: Esther Yau (HKU), Judith Pernin (CEFC),
Sebastian Veg (CEFC/HKU)

For more information, please click here.


This section is dedicated to documentaries made by independent filmmakers on the history of the Mao era (1949-1976) over the last 25 years. It is composed of two separate filmographies, which attempt to provide as full an overview as possible of this specific genre. Contrary to mainstream or official historical documentaries typically focusing on political figures and their actions, independent films attempt to depict the subjective experiences of historical events as they are remembered by « ordinary people ». Personal memories and subjectivity therefore hold an important position in this body of films, even though some independent filmmakers combine this subjective approach with an investigative method or an educational style. Both filmographies have been compiled over the span of two years during research carried out at independent film festivals and archives in the Mainland and Hong Kong, or directly through the help of filmmakers. These films have been selected for their contribution to the understanding of the Mao era, may they address historical issues directly or in a more allusive way. Most of these films have been duly watched, but due to the difficulty to obtain film copies inherent to the independent nature of the works, some titles have not been available. In this case, we relied on extensive descriptions, for instance in film festival catalogs, to assess their relevance.

The first filmography gathers documentaries of various styles and authors starting from 1992, the year following the first independent documentaries ever made in China. Although this list does not claim exhaustivity, it is the first attempt to systematically document what has emerged as a specific sub-genre of independent film in China. The selected works all address past experiences of the protagonists, shedding light on the daily life during the Mao era. However, some of the historical content of these films extends well beyond this period, for instance by relating events preceding the founding of the PRC with the period in scrutiny ; other times, the past is revisited in order to explain the historical causes of contemporary issues.

Independent Documentaries on the Mao era (1992-2015)

The second filmography is dedicated to works produced in the framework of the Folk Memory Project (2010-now). Coordinated by documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang at Caochangdi Workstation, this project initially aimed to provide oral testimonies on the Great Famine in the countryside all around China, with directors fanning out to villages they were familiar with to interview older people. This project quickly evolved towards other topics and an active participation of the filmmakers in the protagonists’ lives in the villages, setting these films apart from other historical independent documentaries. This filmography is the first attempt to provide a full list of films made within the project, and it has been compiled with the help of Caochangdi Workstation’s artists in residence.

The Folk Memory Project – Filmography (2010-2014)









2014 Sebastian Veg, “Testimony, History and Ethics: From the Memory of Jiabiangou Prison Camp to a Reappraisal of the Anti-Rightist Movement in Present-Day China,” The China Quarterly, Vol. 218 (June 2014), pp. 514-539.








2014 China Perspectives No. 2014/4 Special Feature: “Remembering the Mao Era: From creative practices to parallel history.”

Guest editors: Judith Pernin and Sebastian Veg (CEFC)