Long Shadows over New Beginnings?Oral History in Contemporary China

XIAO Qinghe 文章收藏评论69字数 66698阅读222分19秒阅读模式

Oral history has a long, complex, and at times troubled history in China. This article reviews a few aspects of the twentieth-century history of oral history in China and the more recent development of oral history in this broader context. I argue that oral historians may profit from learning more about the rich and difficult path oral history took in China in the twentieth century. I hope to stimulate a debate among oral historians in China and elsewhere about the meanings of China's long history of oral history for today's practitioners.


China, confession, historiography, interview society

Oral history in China has been growing significantly over the past three to four decades. In November 2017, I was invited to visit the Cui Yongyuan Centre for Oral History (CCOH) at Communication University in China (CUC) in Beijing and to deliver a keynote speech at the Oral History in China Conference, which took place within the International Oral History Week (IOHW), under the theme "Echoes of Memory: The Power of Oral History." During my visit to Beijing, I had the opportunity to learn more about recent developments in oral history in China. According to several Chinese and Western observers, oral history began in the 1980s with the introduction of Western (that is, Anglo-American) oral history methodology. Since the turn of the century, this development appears to have accelerated, with the founding of several centers, associations, and other organizations, the support of wealthy entrepreneurs, and the popularization of oral history in television and publications. While a broad range of organizations has led to diverse approaches to oral history, the overall sentiment among some [End Page 1] of the colleagues I met at the CCOH is that the flurry of oral history activity since the beginning of the twenty-first century is a new and exciting development.

I was impressed by the scope of the CCOH, and also remembering the whirlwind of oral history activity that developed in Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War, this explanation of a sudden new start of oral history in China made sense to me. Upon my return from Beijing, I began to write a 500-word blog entry for the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg's own website. Just to make sure I did not miss anything, I did a quick search for "China" in the Oral History Review archives, expecting no returns. Instead, I came across an article by Stephen Thompson and Paul Thompson about their experience of oral history in China in the mid-1980s.1 This, together with another dozen English-language articles I found, sucked me into the white-rabbit hole of China's history of oral history. I began to wonder: to what degree are the current projects and methods based on or inspired by Anglo-American methods introduced during the 1980s? What previous oral history work in China contributed to this new development?

I come to these questions simply because of my short visit in Beijing—my first-ever visit to China—and because of my interest in the history of oral history; I have virtually no knowledge of Chinese language, culture, society, or history, let alone historiography. Yet the extant English-language literature—limited as it is—provides clues to these questions that may be of interest to colleagues unfamiliar with oral history in China.2 In fact, this literature reveals a deep history of oral tradition, several centuries of sporadic but expert use of oral history, and a rich, complex, and unsettling history of oral history in China throughout the twentieth century. As I survey this history, I wonder how this pre-1980s history may offer opportunities for reflection in further attempts to understand the newer developments since the 1980s.3 Further, I hope it may stimulate oral historians in other countries to take a closer look at their own national history of oral history.

Over the past half century, it seems that only about a dozen or so English-language articles have been published about the history of oral history in China; both British and North American observers have expressed disappointment and puzzlement about oral history in China. In 1974, H. Jean Morrison, then director of the oral history department at McGill University in Montreal, who had been trying to interview people in China about Canadian physician Norman Bethune, [End Page 2] claimed that "China may be a long way from implementing an oral history program as we know it—open, frank dialog on any and every subject."4 Everywhere Morrison asked about oral history, she was met with silence. Only colleagues at Peking University told her that to their knowledge, oral history was not being done in China.5 A decade later, Bruce Stave, visiting China as a Fulbright professor in 1984–1985, wrote that all knowledge about oral history in China seemed to be hidden "behind walls." Although he found evidence of oral history practices going back to the 1930s, he argued that "oral history, in the western sense of institutionalized archives easily open to academic and public researchers, still appears to be far in the future."6 Two years later, Thompson and Thompson, after a visit to China, asserted that oral history hardly existed, that cassette recorders were nearly impossible to get, and that political repression kept many topics taboo. "After thirty years of bitter political struggle, China is full of feuds, vendettas and painful memories," they wrote in Oral History in 1987. "Researchers daren't ask, and people daren't answer."7 According to the Thompsons, it was mostly Westerners who did oral history in China. Yet they also noted that there had been a flurry of recording people's stories going on throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—just like Stave, however, they did not know where to find these records or what to make of them.8

Writing in the same issue of Oral History, the Chinese historian Yang Liwen provided a different picture of oral history in China.9 He said that even during those difficult years, tape recorders were more commonly used than the Thompsons had believed. He admitted that it was unclear how much of these efforts was archived or published.10 In 1992, Luke S. K. Kwong, who had studied in Hong Kong and Toronto, taught at Chung Chi College of the Chinese University of Hong Kong from 1976 to 1989, and then joined the history department of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, published what [End Page 3] appears to be still the most extensive English-language survey of twentieth-century oral history in China.11 In this article, he argued that Westerners were confused because they had applied too narrow a definition of oral history. He pointed out that Morrison's timing was bad—she had tried to conduct interviews in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, when it was not really wise to be open and frank, and her understanding of oral history, Kwong wrote, "cannot be taken as an all-inclusive, sufficient definition."12 Kwong took Stave to task for presenting oral history in China as a "puzzle." Stave's confusion, Kwong argued, resulted not from the actual situation but rather was the result of his narrowly American understanding of oral history, which emphasized "an organized 'movement,'" "tape-recorded interviews," "central archives," and "legal releases."13

Yet, although Kwong undersold Stave's contribution (which I will describe below), what he unearthed was significantly more than what any Western observer had previously described. In hindsight, after my return from Beijing, I was surprised that I had not heard about those projects. Considering the restrictions posed by language and time, I should not have been surprised; but it motivated me to dig deeper and learn more about this history. For good reasons, I was ignorant of this history, but I began to wonder: was the mass of the oral history iceberg just as invisible in China as elsewhere? Did I not hear about this history of oral history in China because my colleagues did not have access to earlier projects, if, as the Thompsons speculated, some of the records were lost or kept in government or party vaults? Even the material researchers produced since the 1980s may be difficult to access, as a CCOH colleague later pointed out to me: [End Page 4] some books are out of print and cassette tapes may be languishing in less-than-pristine conditions in private homes (an all-too-familiar story).14 Or did I not hear about earlier projects because Chinese oral historians now employ Stave's "narrow" definition of oral history as a means to develop standards and to distinguish their work from the earlier research? Before describing my admittedly extremely limited impressions of the current state of oral history in China and especially the work at the CCOH, I will in the following give a brief overview of oral history in China up to the 1990s.

Three Thousand Years of Oral History? From the Zhou Dynasty to the 1990s

As we know from Donald Ritchie's short historical survey of oral history, the practice of oral history is as old as China's Zhou dynasty, whose scribes "collected the sayings of the people for the use of court historians."15 But there appears to be no intellectual link between such earlier practices and the emergence of oral history in China in the 1980s (just as no intellectual link has been established between the ancient Greek historians, also often hailed as the first oral historians, and the practices that emerged in the West after World War II). Like Ritchie, Kwang asserted that "Chinese historians have, in fact, long utilized oral data as a central dimension in their research and writing."16 Yang Xiangyin from Jilin University in Changchun agreed: "Oral history is both ancient and new in China."17

Kwong, however, attempted to establish an intellectual link between oral tradition, ancient scribes' use of testimony, and practices after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949: "As in other pre-literate societies, before the invention of writing Chinese knowledge of the past had been preserved in oral traditions kept alive by professional and often sightless story-tellers and balladeers. The first written records of the ancient Chinese states during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (770–221 BC) bear ample evidence of the existence and influence of earlier oral sources."18 A period followed when oral tradition was dismissed because it had traded heavily in "bizarre and fantastic oral legends" that were unacceptable as reliable evidence. But such skepticism was not always justified, as the work of Ssu-ma Ch'ien (司马迁, Sima Qian, c. 145 or 135–90 BC) demonstrated. He "was perhaps the first [End Page 5] known major Chinese historian to have employed oral information to good effect in a serious historiographical way."19 Thus, just like elsewhere, while "orality never gained the respectability accorded the written word, it was never completely suppressed or obliterated from Chinese historiography."20 Indeed, as one of my colleagues from CCOH wrote me, she had "read and heard that many more oral historians agreed on the 'narrow definition' [of oral history] and took those ancient activities as 'oral tradition,' two different concepts."21

Orally transmitted knowledge mostly lived on in the form of pi-chi (笔记, Biji; "miscellaneous notes"), a "potpourri of facts and fiction" that "remained an integral part of the Chinese literary and historiographical traditions through dynastic (that is, pre-1912) times."22 Throughout the centuries, individual historians continued to use oral history as reliable historical evidence, including T'an Ch'ien (谈迁, Tan Qian, 1593–1657), Chang Hsueh-ch'eng (章学诚, Zhang Xuecheng, 1738–1801), and Liang Ch'i-ch'ao (梁启超, Liang Qichao, 1873–1929).23 Unfortunately, Kwong does not tell us whether these historians knew of earlier efforts or simply always reinvented the wheel of oral history. My colleague at CCOH, however, believes that as "well-educated and recognized historians … they should have read Sima Qian and other history books as well."24 Yet Kwong traced nineteenth-century, trans-Pacific links between Chinese and American practices. For example, American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, who had sent out a team of interviewers to collect information for his history of California, inspired Liang's systematic use of oral history. But this innovation in Chinese historiography was soon forgotten: "Liang's challenge seems to have gone largely unnoticed."25

When Liang was writing in the 1920s, there were important developments in the understanding and practice of history in China. According to Kwong, education was more widely promoted and there was a greater interest in the common people. At the same time, social sciences became more influential. Finally, socialists and communists "worked diligently among the oppressed and disgruntled in society. In order to gauge revolutionary potential, they implemented a version of 'going to the people'.… The data obtained through such populist [End Page 6] outreach were generally first collected in oral form."26 Kwang concluded: "The convergence of these circumstances made the interview method and the oral information gathered by it an indispensable tool in the hands of both scholars and political activists, whether they studied Chinese society for social-scientific or ideological purposes or both. When involving fieldwork and the interview technique, their approach was generally referred to as k'ao-ch'a (考察, Kao Cha, "inspection") or tiao-ch'a (调查, Diao Cha, "survey; investigation")."27 Indeed, Mao Zedong figured prominently in such endeavours, both as an "oral historian" who conducted group interviews and wrote about this practice as a method, and as a narrator, starring in American journalist Edgar Snow's interview-based account of the early Chinese Communist movement, Red Star over China.28

Oral history continued to be practiced after Mao's triumph in 1949. Kwong, like all other historians cited so far, agrees that this practice was only interrupted during the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. According to Kwong, from the 1950s onward, Chinese historians and other researchers carried out numerous projects on a variety of topics, often involving dozens of researchers and hundreds of interviewees.29 While historiography became realigned according to Marxist-Maoist principles, historical research became popularized: "Factory workers and commune members delved into the past of their work units. History teachers and school students were mobilized to build up their collections of 'local history teaching materials' [乡土教材, Xiang Tu Jiao Cai, hsiang-t'u chiao-ts'ai)] by going directly to local residents to take notes on [End Page 7] what they had to say about the history of the community."30 Universities "sponsored projects of historical tiao-ch'a on an unprecedented scale."31

According to the Chinese historian Zuo Yuhe, another stream of oral history interviewing included interviews "on revolutionary history related to the Chinese Communist Party. As early as 1935, when the Red Army completed its Long March, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party instructed the Long March participants to tell their stories orally and encouraged them to write their memoirs. After 1949, history departments at various levels of the Party made great efforts to solicit documents and oral data on Party history."32 It is unclear where such documents were archived and whether they are accessible. Paul Thompson writes in his latest survey of oral history in China: "This locally produced material could provide interesting sources, but it is not clear what happened to it."33

Yang Liwen described another project, probably the biggest one, in 1999.34 The article reads like an official report of the Communist Party of China and describes work of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), "a patriotic united front which has brought together numerous democratic factions and people from all walks of life to participate in the political process."35 Part of this political process premier Zhou Enlai initiated in 1959 was to popularize historical investigations into the everyday life of Chinese people. This appeared to have been a massive undertaking: "As of the mid-1990s," Yang claimed, "their collective efforts had resulted in the publication of over 11,600 volumes of the Literature and History Materials Series, representing 4,400 different topics and approximately 1.6 billion characters of writing.… As many as 300,000 people contributed eyewitness accounts to the project which was administered by a staff totaling 3,000 people."36 The Literature and History Materials Series seemed to have been archived rather than published, but by 1993, twenty-four edited volumes had been published in the Library of Literature and History Materials in China.37 Thompson writes that Yang Liwen led this project for many years. The project expanded in the 1980s from a focus [End Page 8] "on the pre-Revolution decades, the People's Liberation Army, and the Party itself … to include the economy, sciences, culture, ethnic minorities, and women."38 According to Yang Xiangyin, some 150 volumes of historical documents had been published by 2000.39

During my visit in Beijing, none of our Chinese colleagues mentioned the CPPCC or the project, even though Zuo, who is well known among oral historians in China, discussed it in a recent review.40 According to a colleague at CCOH, this project is ongoing: "The project is a tradition or part of their daily work according to the constitution of the CPPCC (Section 1, Rule 17). I browsed through several copies of those materials before, some of which can still be found online at the National Library. They read like boring government reports, not oral history. I am not sure about others and what the original materials look like. Some branches, (e.g. Shanghai) of the CPPCC have been re-conducting maybe real oral history projects in recent years."41 For the future development of oral history in China, it would certainly be useful and important to learn about this project, to find out about connections to ongoing research projects, to study its impact on historiographical practice in China, and to study its effects on the historical consciousness of the population. One question I would pose is how such a massive project has shaped a generation's approach to narrating their lives. Another one is how it has shaped their understanding of history.

The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) turned interviewing into interrogation, surveillance, and incrimination (I return to practices of interviewing during the Cultural Revolution below). In the late 1970s, writes Kwong, Chinese historians slowly began to rehabilitate a discredited research method by focusing on factual accuracy. The caesura of the Cultural Revolution did not completely cut all ties between pre-1966 and post-1976 oral history efforts. Several projects completed before 1966 were published only in the 1980s.42 Kwong noted that it was difficult to assess the extent of oral history in China after 1976. Looking at what he found himself, what Stave had reported, and what other historians had found in the 1980s, Kwong admitted: "All this may reveal only the tip of the oral history iceberg in China since 1976."43

For the 1980s, Kwong emphasized the importance of the so-called Pei-ching-jen (北京人, Bei Jing Ren, "Peking Man") phenomenon, namely, that oral histories conducted in China influenced American oral historians whose [End Page 9] works then made their way back to China during the Cultural Revolution, influencing Chinese oral historians. In the early 1960s, the Swedish journalists Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle interviewed peasants in the village of Liu Ling(柳林 Liu Lin, meaning willow forest, near Yan'an)in the province of Shensi (陕西, Shan Xi). Myrdal's book, Report from a Chinese Village, inspired Studs Terkel to write his first oral history, Division Street.44 In the 1980s, Terkel's books were published in China, which then inspired Chang Hsin-hsin (Zhang Xinxin) and Sang Yeh (Sang Ye) to conduct similar studies, which were published in North America, Taiwan, and China in the 1980s.45 There was disagreement over whether such literary narratives could be counted as oral history; similarly, many oral history projects carried out in the twentieth century were criticized for being methodologically flawed or containing only "unverifiable legends."46 Oral history projects throughout North America and Europe have, of course, been criticized for similar shortcomings. If anything, though, we have a more inclusive view of oral history in the 2010s than we did in the 1990s.

Unlike Kwong, but more like the colleagues I met during my Beijing visit, Yang Xiangyin emphasized the break between the pre- and the post-1980s development. During a first stage from 1949 to the 1970s, historians were concerned with rewriting the history of prerevolutionary China. According to Yang Xiangyin, "a second stage in the development of Chinese oral history commenced in the 1980s, when the term 'oral history' itself began to be used and distinguished from 'oral tradition.'"47 Four trends characterized this second stage: the influence of "foreign" oral history theory and methods; Chinese oral historians' meetings and exchanges with oral historians from abroad; the growth of oral history projects that frequently used modern recording technologies and the Internet; and the teaching of oral history in university courses. Writing in 2001, Yang was optimistic about the development of a growing "market" for oral history, despite a lack of national standards and organizations and the fact that "few people understand oral history."48

Awareness of the History of Oral History in China in 1985 and 2015

Two articles published in 1985 and 2015 throw some light on how familiar Chinese oral historians were with the twentieth-century history of oral history in [End Page 10] China. Although Stave did not see much evidence of US-style oral history during his one-year stay at Peking University (commonly referred to as Beida) in 1984–1985, he uncovered that "oral history, in a variety of interesting ways, has been practiced in China since the 1949 Liberation when Mao Zedong's Communist Party overthrew the Kuomintang of Chang Kai-shek."49 Stave interviewed several Chinese oral historians. He also attended public and in-class oral history interviews conducted for an undergraduate history course that Zhang Ji Qian led. Zhang, who had been an undergraduate student at Southwest Associated University (Lianda), asked her students to record interviews with former students of her alma mater and transcribe those interviews. In an interview with Zhang, Stave learned that Zhang had been conducting oral history interviews since 1960, when "she went to the countryside north of Beijing to help the peasants write a county history. During the 'Four History' and Socialist Education movements, when Chairman Mao called for the histories of villages, family, factory, and soldiers, Professor Zhang did her bit to assist the people 'to remember the miserable past and to think of the fortunate future.' She interviewed sailors in a famous fighting battalion and she lived and worked in an auto factory, studied it through interviews, and helped to write its history. To a great extent, such oral history in China has a very definite Maoist ideological tint, which may account for why there is no organized oral history movement in Deng Xiaoping's China."50 Stave, of course, was writing nine years after Mao's death and seven years after Deng had begun economic reforms.

Stave also interviewed Yang Liwen, another Beida history professor. Yang told Stave about his own oral history interviewing since the 1950s, provided insights into the history of oral history in China, and showed him numerous oral history-based publications. Stave described Yang, who was in his early fifties at the time, as "knowledgeable" and "quite enthusiastic" about oral history. "Prior to the Cultural Revolution," Stave learned from Yang, "tape recorders were not often used for the interviews which formed the foundation of such studies. However, once Chairman Mao urged that history be written for and by the people, during the Cultural Revolution tape recorders came into increasing use. When Professor Yang employed a tape recorder to interview peasants in the Jing Gang Mountain areas, where he lived and worked for three months, they were astonished at the unfamiliar and magical machine."51 Thus, according to Yang, oral history actually increased during the Cultural Revolution. Stave also learned about oral history-based revolutionary history that collected dozens of volumes of memoirs from the 1950s onward. He was informed about the CPPCC's Literature and History Materials Series, which both he and his [End Page 11] interlocutors viewed as oral history. From other experts he was told about "a bureau within the Chinese Communist Party which does oral history."52

Zhang Zhuhong, another Beida history professor, told Stave about efforts during the 1930s to record the memoirs of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members, a practice that grew throughout the 1950s and took off after the Cultural Revolution, now often with the support of tape recorders. Stave knew that "hundreds of thousands" of such memoirs had been written in the decade after the Cultural Revolution: "The tape recordings, according to Professor Zhang, introduced so many contradictions about historical revolutionary events that the materials are frequently left unused by historians interested in revolutionary history."53 Stave also described Chang Hsin-hsin and Sang Yeh's Peking Man Project, suggesting that they "may prove to be the Studs Terkels of China."54 And he recounted several other oral history projects that both Chinese and foreign scholars conducted in China.

Thus, by the mid-1980s, even foreigners with a limited knowledge of Chinese could, with the help of colleagues and translators, find out about China's long twentieth-century history of oral history, in much of its diversity and complexity. It seems, though, that this knowledge never entered a broader academic, let alone public, memory. This seeming reluctance to engage with pre-1980s oral history is even more perplexing when considering the article Zuo published in 2015.

According to Zuo's article, which is based on Chinese publications and does not reference any English-language articles, oral history existed in China before the 1980s, but not in its "modern form." Zuo writes: "Modern oral history started in 1948 at Columbia University's Oral History Research Office.… Oral history in China was introduced from the West during the 1980s. Thus, the rise of oral history is a new trend in the development of historical studies in China."55 This is also the explanation Zheng Songhui, who described the development of oral history at Chinese libraries in 2008, provided.56 Li Huibo from China Women's University differentiates a first phase of oral history defined by state ideology from a "second phase, the period beginning in the 1980s, when oral history was 'geared to international standards.'"57 Her British collaborator on a women's oral history project, Margaretta Jolly, explained: "Notably, these [standards] reflect not so much a movement away from the explicitly political approach of the earlier era as a complex mix of European Marxist and feminist [End Page 12] ideas of 'history from below,' which was partly disseminated through a visit by socialist British oral historian Paul Thompson in 1986."58 This is also what the CCOH staff told me. Considering Stave's and Kwong's articles, I found this assertion that oral history in China began only in the 1980s startling.

Zuo argued that current Chinese oral history began only in the mid-1980s, even though oral historians, as he acknowledged, were aware of and informed by earlier research: "Because of the long tradition of oral history in China and the practice of oral historical research as well as the oral interviews since 1949, Chinese scholars did not feel unfamiliar with the Western concept of oral history when it was introduced into China in the 1980s. The Western theory and method of oral history were smoothly accepted and quickly modified to integrate into the Chinese practice of the oral historical interview.… In 1986, Jing Shun published the first academic article to introduce to Chinese readers the theory and methods of oral history used in Europe and the United States."59 But Zuo did not explain what differentiated Chinese and Western oral history practices or what made the latter "modern."

Zuo argued that since the 1980s, oral history in China has developed along "two basic tracks." One included historians using oral history in order to find out about the past; the other included a smaller group of oral historians exploring the theoretical underpinnings of oral history. "Through the combined efforts of these two groups of scholars," he notes, "oral history quickly took off as a new branch of the discipline of history in China."60 In Beijing, I met a few oral historians who had been conducting interviews since the 1980s. Ding Yizhuang, for example, interviewed Manchu women and old Beijingers in the 1990s and published several volumes of their narratives.61 Chen Mo has been interviewing Chinese filmmakers. Both later published books on oral history theory and method. Throughout the Oral History in China Conference they, like others, did not refer to any of the earlier work. Instead, they seemed to agree that oral history in China had begun only in the 1980s and that China now needed to catch up to the standards the West developed. Only Chu Hong-yuan from Taiwan called upon his colleagues not to focus exclusively on Western models but also to remember their own history—without referencing, however, any specific studies, projects, or scholars. As I have noted before, oral historians around the world often lack an awareness—let alone detailed knowledge—of their field's [End Page 13] history.62 I do not know enough about oral history in China to say whether such a paradox exists there, but it may be worth investigating, because it might have implications for the development of future studies. Some of the more troubling implications are discussed in the following section.

Oral History as a Regime of Social Disciplining in China?

Western historians' confusion about the history of oral history in China and current Chinese oral historians' silence about this history may have a more sinister explanation. In 2010, the Mongolia-born social anthropologist Uradyn E. Bulag from the University of Cambridge argued that the Communists under Mao Zedong had established a repressive "oral-history regime" by making oral history into a "public political ritual" that forced everyone to confess to their mistakes publicly, to condemn the period before 1949, and to hail the Chinese Communist Party and Mao as their savior.63 In effect, the CCP required all interviewees to narrate their lives along Party lines. Such confessional memoirs were then used to decide (at that moment or later on) whether people could become CCP cadres or would be deemed suspect, which could mean the loss of livelihood or life. This regime was put in place long before the Cultural Revolution and, according to Bulag, continues to this day.

In this same article, Bulag begins with a challenge to one of the main driving forces of oral history as it has been practiced in North America and Europe since the 1960s: as a means of empowering "the people." He argues that "the notion of 'oral' in oral history as practised in revolutionary China must not be understood in its banal sense of using the mouth. Rather, it is related to the political function of voice and speech, an idea traced to Rousseau who insisted on the priority of speech over writing. In the Marxist ideology, speech represents emancipation, nature, truth, and the voiced speaker is endowed with moral authority."64 But rather than allowing the marginalized, oppressed, and subalterns to counter official history, in revolutionary China, "'the people'—new subaltern speakers or oral historians—are in fact disciplined, performing a subjectivity dictated by a greater force, the CCP. The energy unleashed by oral history in this way is as destructive as it is constructive, so it requires careful management on the part of the CCP so that the Party itself is not hurt."65 In this regime, "silence is not an option."66 [End Page 14]

After the CCP's defeat by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party (GMD, 国民党, Guo Min Dang, KMT, Kuomingtang), its Long March to Yan'an in 1935, and the reuniting of the CCP and GMD against the Japanese invasion, oral history was born as a "special technique" in a leadership struggle that Mao won. According to Bulag, Mao used oral history "to consolidate his own position in the CCP and to mobilise peasantry—the people." In Mao's Rectification Movement during the war, "cadres were forced to expose their innermost thoughts, including their darkest secrets, to the public, thereby to reconstitute themselves and the new collective society they comprised."67 In short, Mao forced his followers to ensure that their past and present lives conformed to his writings: "As is clear in this innovation, to be part of the inner circle, one had to probe into one's soul by articulating and narrating one's own life histories. Life histories, whether written or orally narrated, thus became for the CCP a technology of power for cleansing its rank and file. These histories and the claimed thought activities were checked and archived, but constantly retrieved and re-examined, sometimes to devastating effect. Those whose life histories and inner thoughts were not deemed correct were ruthlessly cleansed from the CCP, often killed."68

This practice was then expanded by making it a crucial part of "the mass line," the CCP's campaign in the late 1930s to connect with the people: "It was here that oral history took centre stage in the CCP mobilisation."69 It was also used to ensure unquestioned loyalty in the party and army in so-called suku (诉 苦, emotionally charged "speaking bitterness meetings"). Bulag continues: "Oral history as a vital technique for the CCP's victory was most effectively deployed in 1948 at the outset of the Civil War against the GMD, when the whole party and entire army underwent a movement called 'san yi san cha,'" in which everyone was forced to recall "the bitterness of the old society … the atrocity of the GMD reactionaries, and … the bitterness of having lost the state during the Japanese occupation." Everyone was forced to check "one's class background … work performance, and … determination." Everyone deemed unreliable was eliminated while the survivors rallied around their grievances: "A communitas of suffering and hatred was created by the technique of oral history."70

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the CCP continued to use oral history as a "technology of power" and a "highly useful tool to legitimise the CCP and to build socialism."71 In all sectors of society, people were required to participate in yiku sitian, "recalling bitterness in the old society and contrasting it with happiness in the new … Yiku sitian was highly structured [End Page 15] and performative. Basically, an old peasant or a soldier would be invited to give a report, in which he would narrate his life stories, how his brother was starved to death, how his sister was raped, and how his parents worked so hard that they coughed blood until they were liberated by the CCP and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Again, as in suku meetings, there would be trying, with the intention of generating a feeling of communitas. But they had to finish with gratitude to the CCP for the happiness they now enjoyed."72 Stave had come across this phenomenon in 1985 but seems to have seen it simply as a description of a reality (rather than as a violently enforced template) in which "Professor Zhang did her bit to assist the people 'to remember the miserable past and to think of the fortunate future.'"73

Like Yang Liwen, Bulag argues that oral history increased during the Cultural Revolution, but not as a tool to learn about the people's history; rather, oral history became a tool of mass control: "The method of criticism and self-criticism developed to extract information about one's life, inner thought, and attitude was generalised during the Socialist Education Movement from 1962 to 1966 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, with devastating effect. Millions of people, almost all elites of the new Communist China, had been ordered to … confess their mistakes and face investigations. Denunciations of others, confessions of one's mistakes, and the practice of naming names, either voluntarily or under duress, produced the greatest tragedy in twentieth-century China."74

Were any of these activities related to oral history projects Kwong described? Bulag argues that the official oral history inquiries were used "in order to contain subversion from within and without the Party."75 This included the obligation for every high-ranking CCP official to publish a "Revolutionary Memoir" as well as the massive CPPCC project Kwong and Yang Liwen discussed. "Revolutionary memoirs and wenshi ziliao [the CPPCC materials collection] are arguably the CCP's largest oral-history writing operation, based as it was on eyewitness accounts."76

Bulag's point is not to establish whether such widespread social practices constituted oral history in any academic sense: "Normally we do not consider this kind of confession record as oral history, nor do we see any value whatsoever in such data, but this is correct only as far as ethics is concerned."77 Indeed, I would argue, whether we view suku, yiku sitian, revolutionary memoirs, and wenshi ziliao as oral history or not is secondary to the question of how they [End Page 16] have affected generations of Chinese people. It seems plausible to suggest that the CCP's enforced public life-history telling has taught millions of people how to talk about their lives. It is only logical to assume that this may have had an effect on how people recount their lives in academic or journalistic oral history projects.78

Bulag describes this oral history regime as a "living tradition" that "has pervaded all strata of society, from young students to old cadres, from ordinary peasants to feudal landlords, from the past enemies to the communists."79 How much is this living tradition linked to the current flourish of oral history in China? Here is Bulag's answer: "If modern China is an oral-history regime, in which everyone has been trained to vocalise their subjectivity, voicing their loyalty to the Party and hatred to a changing array of enemies, it comes as no surprise that academics in China were so receptive to 'oral history' when it was first introduced."80 Bulag here follows the established line that "proper" oral history was introduced only in the 1980s, which indicates that Bulag does not sufficiently distinguish between the CCP's confessional regime and the more academically- and history-oriented projects that were carried out at the same time (although it is of course difficult to disentangle academic from political agendas in such projects). Bulag is right to point out, however, that this confessional regime seems to have been forgotten: "Surprisingly, there is a general amnesia of this oral-history heritage, or a failure to see any connection between the oral-history regime and the newly introduced oral-history discipline."81

Considering the massive scale of this oral history regime, "a general amnesia" seems an implausible explanation.82 I find it difficult to believe that my colleagues in Beijing failed to mention the CCP's use of oral history because they had forgotten about it. It seems more plausible that they simply do not view such practices as related in any way to their own current vision of oral history. Lin Hui, the deputy director of the CCOH, emphasized the proper (US-based) method of high recording quality and archiving. Further, as we know from other [End Page 17] countries, oral historians (like those in most other disciplines) focus on learning from the latest publications, thus ignoring earlier efforts and, as a result, constantly praising the most recent work as innovative when in fact it has been done before.83 This may also explain why colleagues were similarly silent about the more academic oral history projects Kwong unearthed and described. Whatever the explanation, though, it is important, as Bulag stresses, to begin research into the potential connections between earlier oral history projects and regimes of enforced public confession and self-narrating on the one hand and, on the other hand, the more recent attempts to establish oral history as an academic and public undertaking along the lines of Western (and especially American) practices.

At the same time, oral historians need to be open to other narrative developments and patterns in twentieth-century Chinese history. After the Cultural Revolution, narrative templates and conformist plots shifted. Stave informed us as early as 1985 that the "evil pre-1949/happy post-1949" story had changed to an emphasis on bad memories of the Cultural Revolution—a story unthinkable while Mao and the so-called Gang of Four were still in power. This "wounded literature" genre, Stave explained, "reveals the wounds inflicted by the Cultural Revolution, an event not kind to China's present preeminent leader, Deng Xiaoping."84 But under Deng, himself plagued by unpleasant memories of the Cultural Revolution, this was a welcome narrative.

Thus, the twentieth-century history of oral history in China prevents us from seeing modern oral history as simply a post-1980s phenomenon with nostalgic roots in ancient oral tradition. Talking about or telling one's life in public has a complex and difficult history in China. This phenomenon has only become more complex since the beginning of the twenty-first century, when television and Internet provided new forums and templates for Chinese people to narrate their lives. While we may dismiss such venues as not oral history, current oral historians may find it useful to study them in order to understand better their own practices, the people they interview, and their own assumptions as interviewers.

Neoliberal Entertainment, Countermemories, or a New State Narrative? Developments in the Twenty-First Century

What, then, are these latest efforts in establishing oral history in China? From the early 2000s, according to Zuo, oral history developed at several places in [End Page 18] China, among which the CCOH was but one part: "In December 2004, the Chinese Association of Oral History Studies was established in order to coordinate oral history resources in China and to move away from the situation of dispersed, unorganized oral history studies and interviews. It is still the only national-level professional organization of oral history in China."85 Zuo writes that the association had sixty institutional members, "which means membership includes almost all important academic and educational agencies, scholars, and those who are interested in oral history in China." It held four national seminars with over a hundred participants each, as well as twenty scholarly forums throughout China between 2004 and 2014; and it publishes the journal Zhonghua koushu lishi congshu (Collected Works of Oral History of China).86

Paul Thompson reports about active centers in several cities as well as recent projects, including the China Memory Project, which was set up at the National Library in Beijing in 2011 and seems to be quite similar to the CCOH. The former director of the China Central TV program People, Tian Miao, leads it, and CCOH produces video interviews and "high-quality documentaries" about people from all walks, from "musicians, scientists, and artists to craftspeople and war veterans."87 Another project, begun at Wenzhou University in 2008, trains students in oral history. Since 2014, Oral History Studies has served as a platform for Chinese oral historians' research findings: "Here and elsewhere there have been increasingly active contacts with academics from other countries, and a Chinese international oral history society has been set up to provide links throughout the Chinese diaspora."88 Margaretta Jolly has reported on a four-year cooperation during the early 2010s between the China Women's Oral History Project at China Women's University in Beijing and her own University of Sussex-based project Sisterhood and After: The Women's Liberation Oral History Project. In her visits to China, Jolly observed the "variety and popularity of women's oral history practice in the People's Republic."89

Since 2000, several oral history primers and readers about theory and method have been published. Ding Yizhuang published Readings in History: Oral History, which is available only in Chinese. Chen Mo has published two [End Page 19] Chinese-language books on oral history: Introduction to Oral History and Studies in Oral History; Zhou Xinguo edited Theories and Practice of Oral History; Li Xiangping and Wei Yangbo wrote Methods of Oral History; and Li Weimin wrote Localization of Oral History Theories.90 Yang Xiangyin has published Dialogue with History: Methods and Practice of Oral History and Studies on American Modern Oral History—the latter, unlike the other books, is based to a large extent on the English-language literature in oral history. In addition to these manuals and collections, Chinese oral historians have had access to Chinese translations of Paul Thompson's The Voice of the Past and Donald A. Ritchie's Doing Oral History (2006); a Chinese translation of Donald Ritchie's Oxford Handbook of Oral History is apparently forthcoming.91

Zuo emphasizes that this new interest in oral history is not restricted to academia: "Oral history has not only caught the attention of scholars, but has developed a wide following among all ranks of society. Many publishing houses have followed the fashion of publishing oral history books, making oral history really popular."92 These publications are popular, Zuo writes, because they "expose secrets," make history vivid, and are "highly readable."93 According to Zuo, next to edited oral history narratives and interview-based sociological studies, there are historical studies based on oral histories and archival sources, which he views as the "true achievements in modern oral history."94 Zuo argues that they have changed Chinese historiography, shifting its "focus to include the lower ranks of society."95 He also argues, however, that oral history in China is only in its "initial stage," "far from a higher level of oral historiography," and often conducted in an amateurish way. He calls for more systematic efforts in training, theorizing, and archiving. He also notes that together with his colleagues, the Chinese Association for Oral History Studies, and the National Library of China, he has begun this undertaking.96

According to CCOH staff, another force driving the development of oral history in China is the CCOH, in particular the CCOH founder, Cui Yongyuan, a well-known national talk show host and producer who, according to Wikipedia, "rose to fame hosting the show Tell It Like It Is on China Central Television from 1996 to 2002. After a battle with depression, Cui returned to CCTV to host Talk with Xiaocui. From 2012 to 2013 Cui hosted the show Thank the Heavens and the Earth that You Are Here. He left CCTV in 2013 to work at his alma [End Page 20] mater, the Communication University of China."97 In 2000, Cui traveled to Japan and the United States. The systematic collection of oral history that preserved the experiences and memories of Japanese and American societies impressed him. He wanted to do the same for China, because, according to an information brochure the CCOH produced, "at that time, oral history in China was still a blank."98 Coming from a television background, Cui emphasized production quality and usability for movie documentaries.

Currently, Ding Junjie, who teaches in the school of advertising, directs the center. The deputy director, Lin Hui, is a senior media expert; she seems to be the driving force, managing a team of forty researchers, interviewers, camera operators, catalogers, librarians, editors, and assistants. Until 2012, all staff were paid through private funding; then, the Communication University as well as specific projects contributed funds as well. In the center's information brochure, the team is referred to as "the journalist group."99 Four interview teams, made up of an interviewer (with training either in history or journalism), a professionally trained camera operator (with experience in television), and two assistants, regularly interview participants in Beijing, throughout China, and in other places around the world. The team also supports professional production companies that create documentaries based on their interviews, which are regularly broadcast on Chinese television. In a conversation with me, Lin explained that oral history has become more professional over the past decade, including a greater emphasis on high-quality production, oral history-based interviewing, and systematic archiving. The CCOH occupies the university's old library, an older but impressive four-story building with large spaces for exhibits, dozens of offices, a library, a film studio, its own battery of servers, and high-quality video and computer equipment.

According to Bulag, this flurry of oral history activity since the beginning of the twenty-first century is part of a broader phenomenon: "In China, oral history is known as koushu shi in Chinese, a direct translation of the term 'oral history,' an import from the West in recent years. Oral history in China is now a flourishing industry, commercialized and entertaining. Hundreds of books have the title of Koushu shi, and various Chinese TV channels have oral-history programmes, with some senior people telling their life stories, providing testimonies about historical events."100 Thompson similarly observed "a spread of non-academic popular oral history using internet websites, which are much less within official [End Page 21] control."101 Yet, in my discussion with Lin Hui, she clearly saw her center's work as distinct from this more popular form of oral history. Even though CCOH staff emphasize production value, draw on significant television expertise in their staff, and produce made-for-television documentaries based on their interviews, they also stress the importance of indexing and archiving interviews in order to make them accessible to academic research. According to Lin, one reason to invite me (and other international oral historians like Indira Chowdhury, Alexander von Plato, and Doug Boyd in 2015) was to shift the center's focus from pure production to more practical and theoretical training and academic research.

But even before this expansion in 2015, the CCOH's production had been massive in scope. From 2002 to 2014, the CCOH collected, indexed, and archived some 13,000 hours of interview (about 4,000 interviews) on a variety of topics in modern Chinese history. With a vast amount of exhibition space, the center has also been exhibiting related materials Cui and others donated, including thousands of film posters, diaries, paintings, photographs, movie props, furniture, and other "historical pieces," as well as a collection of 20,000 biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs that have been fully catalogued and are accessible in the center's library. The center has also offered undergraduate and graduate education for CUC students as well as a master's degree in oral history since 2015.102 Until 2014, one of the center's major projects was Filmmakers of New China (more than 1,000 interviews with designers, make-up artists, executives, actors, animators, technicians, and composers), which documents the development of Chinese film since 1949; the center's storage and exhibit spaces are filled with props from movie sets, film posters, and the private studies of recently deceased screen writers. The center also produced a series of documentary films based on the interviews that was broadcast on television from 2004 to 2009.103

Another project documents the experience of resistance against the Japanese invasion and occupation during World War II. Four hundred veterans were interviewed from 2008 to 2014, including forty Japanese and Taiwanese veterans. The documentary series, My War of Resistance" (2010) and Go for the WarBattle of Taiyuan (2015) were broadcast on Central China TV. The project also produced several websites.104 Other projects documented the role of "prestigious leaders, successful entrepreneurs and famous artists" in the construction of "New China" after 1949; the experiences of Chinese veterans in the Korean War; the experiences of young people who moved to the countryside during the [End Page 22] Cultural Revolution (Zhiqing); the first generation of private entrepreneurs after the 1978 economic reforms; and former students of the National Southwest Associated University, which was a university in exile during the Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945.105 During my stay at the CCOH, I only saw a few minutes of a video interview with an English-speaking veteran, so I cannot comment on the approach to interviewing the CCOH followed.

Overall, with its massive resources in staff, space, equipment, and research funding, its focus on high-quality video, and its ready access to China's media world, the CCOH most resembles the Shoah Foundation's Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California, which received much of its funding from US film director Steven Spielberg and which has a similar focus on the high production quality of its video interviews. The CCOH's motto is "Record for the future." Its "short-term" objective is to "build up a world-class Chinese oral history museum" that collects and protects "China's modern and contemporary oral history documents."106

The theme of the 2017 IOHW conference I attended was nonfiction. The main event attracted some one thousand people (and, according to CCOH staff, many more online), who listened to a range of people telling a variety of stories, including a younger woman's story of how she had come to oral history and an older man's story about his father's composing China's unofficial national anthem. Chinese television stations filmed all of this and broadcast it online. According to the printed program, several workshops explored "nonfiction interviewing and writing." Three award-winning movies were screened, and a poster exhibition introduced the audience to ongoing oral history projects.

As noted above, the Oral History in China Conference took place within the IOHW. According to Lin, "This conference is the key part of the Oral History in China Project which tries to build connections between Chinese oral historians and international scholars by holding lectures, workshops and international conferences."107 My keynote speech was attended by about eighty audience members. Under the title "Democratizing History: Oral History in Canada," I introduced the audience to the development of oral history in Canada and the ways in which the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg attempts to democratize history by making history more inclusive and by breaking down barriers between producers and consumers of history, as well as between researchers and participants (that is, between interviewers and interviewees). In another keynote lecture, Chu Hong-yuan discussed the development of oral history in Taiwan. [End Page 23]

I was also asked to comment on papers presented in two panels (out of a total of six panels stretched over two days). Presenters in the first panel tackled the thorny relationships between China and Japan through a number of courageous and innovative projects. Ishida Ryuji from Maiji Gakuin University in Japan interviewed Japanese war criminals and Chinese war victims of World War II. He asked how their emotional responses shaped their narratives. Yang Xiaoping from Hiroshima University in Japan compared the social memories of the Nanjiing Massacre and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He found that, in part because of ongoing research into the bombing of Hiroshima, survivors there had developed a collective memory; Nanjing survivors, on the other hand, had only individual memories, no collective memory, because research into this event had begun only in the mid-1980s.

Nakamura Takashi from East China Normal University in Shanghai argued that media representations of anti-Japanese protests in Shanghai in 2012 had created fear among the Japanese in Shanghai. Zhu Ruiqi, an undergraduate student from Jinan University, showed that her oral histories supported historians' assessment that Cantonese views of Japan increasingly deteriorated between 1915 and 1945. A second panel explored oral history from different disciplines, but their findings were more relevant to their respective disciplines (education, philosophy, linguistics, music history, military history, and migration history) than to oral history as such. Other panels (which I was not able to attend) explored women's and feminist history and cultural history, health care, law, creative writing, public history, and folklore studies. It became clear from those panels and earlier conferences that oral history is not only practiced at universities, but also in community projects, at K-12 schools, and in undergraduate education. Further, according to Lin, many television talk shows claim that their interviewing is a form of oral history.


Despite such a diversity of projects, I do not know enough about the state of the art of history in China to assess how much of an inroad oral history has already been making. Have oral historians suggested new topics or proposed counternarratives? Do the theoretical debates about epistemology and evidence have an impact on other fields in history? How have the thousands of stories unearthed from all sectors of society influenced the public, party, and state histories? Writing in 2015, Zuo claimed that after the 1980s, "oral history quickly took off as a new branch of the discipline of history in China."108 Indeed, the English-language literature on the history of oral history in China demonstrates that even before the 1980s, China's history of oral history was rich, complex, and—if we agree even only marginally with Bulag—rather troubling. [End Page 24]

In her collaboration with colleagues in China, Jolly called on them "to challenge tendencies to simplify versions of the past, as they navigate pressures to reiterate homogenizing narratives of national ascension."109 This is not an easy path to tread. Oral history frequently liberates genies from their bottles. Such genies—personal stories—can easily and unintentionally undermine national narratives. Containing inconvenient stories is more difficult than putting genies back into their bottle (genies can be easily tricked). This is particularly true in an ideologically and politically charged environment such as modern China. As Paul Thompson argues, in China "the memory struggle has been between, on the one hand, celebration of the Revolution and its achievements, and on the other, hearing the usually silent voices of ordinary people, especially of those who have been victims of the regime's policies. Hence, activity has primarily depended on the fluctuating approaches of the Communist government and of its critics."110 This memory struggle, Thompson reminds us, has come at a heavy price for those who have been arrested, tortured, and incarcerated, who had to flee their country, and whose archives government authorities have seized and destroyed.111

My superficial foray into China's history of oral history demonstrates how vital it is for oral historians in any country to study and know the history of their own field. The new flurry of oral history activity over the past three to four decades is indeed exciting. Clearly, oral history in China is not just an academic activity, but even more so a popular, cultural, and social activity that can be deeply political, as it was throughout the twentieth century. Thus, as elsewhere, studies exploring the connections between earlier oral history practices and current developments will only strengthen current practices by helping oral historians reflect more deeply on their assumptions, methods, and theories. And by placing their oral history practices into a broader context of interviewing and storytelling, they will better understand their narrators' and their own capacities for talking about their lives. This brief survey may help us understand the history of oral history in China; but perhaps more importantly for oral historians outside of China, it confronts us with new questions about the history of our own practices and theories. [End Page 25]

Alexander FreundAlexander Freund is a professor of history and holds the chair in German-Canadian studies at the University of Winnipeg. He coedited Oral History and Photography (New York: Palgrave, 2011) and The Canadian Oral History Reader (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015). He received the 2016 OHA Article Award for "Under Storytelling's Spell? Oral History in a Neoliberal Age," Oral History Review (2015). Email: a.freund@uwinnipeg.ca.


I thank Lin Hui for inviting me to Beijing and providing me an opportunity to learn about oral history in China. I am particularly indebted to a Chinese colleague who wishes to remain anonymous but who provided critical and valuable feedback on this article. I thank Nolan Reilly for a critical review as well as the three anonymous reviewers for the Oral History Review. Thanks to David Caruso, Troy Reeves, and Elinor Mazé for their patience and excellent editing.

1. Stephen Thompson and Paul Thompson, "Oral History in China," Oral History 15, no. 1 (1987): 17–21.

2. I have benefited greatly from discussions with several colleagues from the CCOH as well as other oral historians present at the CCOH conference.

3. I suggest—very humbly, considering my very limited expertise—that the questions I raise in this article can only be answered by those familiar with Chinese history and historiography and with a firm grasp of the language.

4. H. Jean Morrison, "Stepping Behind the Bamboo Curtain," Oral History Association Newsletter (Fall-Winter 1974): 5. Bethune introduced modern medicine to rural China during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), becoming a national hero who is still remembered throughout China today.

5. Morrison, "Stepping Behind the Bamboo Curtain," 5.

6. Bruce Stave, "The Chinese Puzzle: In Search of Oral History in the People's Republic of China," International Journal of Oral History 6, no. 3 (1985): 147 and 159 respectively.

7. Thompson and Thompson, "Oral History in China," 17.

8. Similarly, Paul A. Cohen and Merle Goldman had reported in 1980 that "oral history has been extensively employed as a research method in studying such recent topics as May Fourth, the Northern Expedition, and the revolutionary base areas"; Cohen and Goldman, "Modern History," in Humanistic and Social Science Research in China: Recent History and Future Prospects, ed. Anne F. Thurston and Jason H. Parker (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1980), 46.

9. Chinese names are spelled and styled here as they are in the original sources from which they are drawn, for the sake of researchers who wish to search for those sources. In some cases, the forms of the names are inconsistent from one source to another. For example, the name of the author cited below appears as Liwen in some sources and Li-Wen in others.

10. Yang Liwen, "Oral History in China," Oral History 15, no. 1 (1987): 22–25.

11. "Luke Kwong," University of Lethbridge, entry in the online campus directory, 2015, accessed November 22, 2017, http://directory.uleth.ca/users/kwong; Luke S. K. Kwong, "Oral History in China: A Preliminary Review," Oral History Review 20, nos. 1&2 (1992): 23–50. Unfortunately, Kwong did not keep up with developments in China after 1992. Personal correspondence with Kwong (email November 22 and 23, 2017). A more recent article by a Chinese historian does not provide significantly more information: Zuo Yuhe, "Oral History Studies in Contemporary China," trans. Tian Xiansheng, Journal of Modern Chinese History 9, no. 2 (2015): 259–274.

12. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 25.

13. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 25–26. Much of what Kwong described as different in China could equally be said for oral history elsewhere. Until the mid-twentieth century, eyewitness accounts and interviews were recorded in writing, and even later, audio recorders have not always been used to record interviews. While the archiving of oral history is often seen as an ideal, the reality is often different. Legal releases are still mostly an American (and Canadian) concern, and even there not always practical. And more generally, oral history in any country is like the proverbial iceberg whose tip only is visible in publications and conferences of organized and mostly university-based oral historians. I expressed a similar confusion about the state of oral history in Canada a few years ago by describing it as a paradox: while the oral history movement seemed to be in a steady decline, an ever-increasing number of researchers were doing oral history without identifying themselves as oral historians or viewing their work as oral history. See Alexander Freund, "Oral History in Canada: A Paradox," in Canada in Grainau: A Multidisciplinary Survey after 30 Years / Le Canada a Grainau: un survol multidisciplinaire 30 ans après, eds. Klaus-Dieter Ertler and Hartmut Lutz (Frankfurt am Main, DE: Peter Lang, 2009), 305–335. Even for the US, we know little about the research conducted in the US military, the presidential libraries, and by community researchers not connected to universities.

14. I am deeply indebted to one of my CCOH colleagues who provided all Chinese translations as well as invaluable comments and insights, including a thorough reading of the first draft of this article (December 19, 2017). She wishes to remain anonymous. The insight presented here is from her comment on the first draft.

15. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 1.

16. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 26.

17. Yang Xiangyin, "News from Abroad," Oral History 29, no. 1 (Spring 2001): 21.

18. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 27.

19. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 27.

20. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 27; Zuo claims that oral tradition "formed the foundation for Chinese academia's later introduction of oral history from the West.… Chinese scholars adopted traditional oral methods to carry on the old tradition of oral history"; Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 260

21. CCOH colleague, comment on first draft.

22. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 28.

23. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 28.

24. CCOH colleague, comment on first draft.

25. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 29–30. This pattern of forgetting and reinventing the method was, of course, not unique to China. Whether it is the Federal Writers' Project in the United States in the 1930s, Allan Nevins's project at Columbia University, or the projects that emerged in Great Britain, Italy, and West Germany in the 1970s, none seems to have rooted itself in nineteenth-century models of interviewing that sociologists, ethnographers, journalists, and social reformers developed.

26. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 30–31.

27. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 31.

28. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 31. Kwong also described how the historian Hu Shih (1891–1962), who had learned oral history at Columbia University, introduced k'ou-shu li-shih ("a Chinese rendition of the term oral history") to Taiwan in 1959; see Kwong, "Oral History in China," 24. The Taiwanese oral historian Chu Hongyuan (also from the Academia Sinica, like Hu Shih) confirmed with me this apparently longer history of oral history in Taiwan during my own visit. Taiwan's oral history initiatives, however, seemed to have had no effect on China, which was going through the turmoil of Mao's reforms. Similarly, the extensive work of the Oral History Centre at the National Archives of Singapore, which has been conducting oral histories since the 1960s, seems to have had no major impact on the earlier development of oral history in China. Edgar Snow, Red Star over China (London: V. Gollancz, 1937).

29. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 32–34; Kwong also described the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) project, which, despite its ideological underpinning, generated valuable research material (37–38); Zuo lists these projects as one of "six main achievements" in oral history between 1949 and the 1970s: Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 260. In a Chinese-language article with an English abstract, Yang Xiangyin similarly argues: "Modern oral history in China can be traced back to the 1950s" with projects on the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Uprising, and rural life. "These initial efforts were extinguished by the Cultural Revolution. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, and especially in the 1980s, there was a resurgence of oral history." Yang Xiangyin, "An Overview of Oral History in Contemporary China," Contemporary China History Studies 7, no. 3 (2000): 47.

30. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 33; according to Zuo, after the 1960s, "collecting and processing folk stories" became "a nation-wide grassroots campaign" to record the "four histories" of villages, families, communes, and factories; Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 261. See also Paul Thompson with Joanna Bornat, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 4th ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), 101.

31. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 33.

32. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 260.

33. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101.

34. According to my CCOH colleague and one of the reviewers, this is the same Yang Liwen who published the short note in Oral History in 1987 noted above. The reviewer also notes that he "used to send reports to the IOHA."

35. Yang Liwen, "Oral History in China: Contemporary Topics and New Hurdles," Oral History Review 26, no. 2 (1999): 137. Yang did not mention his article published in 1987 nor Kwon's published in 1992.

36. Yang, "Oral History in China," 139.

37. Yang, "Oral History in China," 139.

38. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101.

39. Yang, "News from Abroad," 21.

40. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 260–1; even though Zuo's article is a translation from Chinese, I do not know whether its Chinese original has been published.

41. CCOH member, comment on first draft of article. Thompson confirms that this project is ongoing; Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101.

42. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 34–37, 40.

43. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 40. Zuo added that oral history was also conducted among China's ethnic minorities to help them "identify and protect their ethnic heritage"; Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 261.

44. Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (New York: Pantheon, 1965); Studs Terkel, Division Street: America (New York: Pantheon, 1967).

45. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 41–44.

46. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 45–46.

47. Yang, "News from Abroad," 21.

48. Yang, "News from Abroad," 21–22.

49. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 147.

50. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 150–1.

51. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 152.

52. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 153.

53. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 154.

54. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 155. It is not clear whether Stave knew that Terkel inspired these two authors, as Kwong had written. Kwong, "Oral History in China," 41–44.

55. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 259.

56. Zheng Songhui, "Developing Oral History in Chinese Libraries," The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 1 (2008): 74–78.

57. Margaretta Jolly with Li Huibo, "Hearing Her: Comparing Feminist Oral History in the UK and China," trans. Ding Zhangang, Oral History Review 45, no. 1 (2018): 56.

58. Margaretta Jolly with Li Huibo, "Hearing Her," 56–57.

59. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 261; Jing Shun, "Koubei shixue fangfa pingxi [Comments on and Analysis of the Method of Using Oral Records in History," Xibei daxue xuebao [Journal of Northwest University], no. 3 (1986): 103–109.

60. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 261–2.

61. For more information about Ding and her works, see Wang Shasha, "Keeping Memories Alive," All-China Women's Federation, October 14, 2015, accessed May 31, 2018, http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/exclusives/1510/682-1.htm.

62. See, for example, Freund, "Oral History in Canada."

63. Uradyn E. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak? On the Regime of Oral History in Socialist China," in "Oral Histories of Socialist Modernities in Central and Inner Asia," special issue, Inner Asia 12, no. 1 (2010): 109.

64. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 97.

65. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 97.

66. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 98.

67. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 98.

68. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 98.

69. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 99.

70. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 99.

71. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 100.

72. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 100.

73. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 150.

74. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 105.

75. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 105.

76. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 107.

77. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 105.

78. I have made a similar point about the role of confessional practices in the West and the neoliberal economy's marketing of best-selling plot lines; see Alexander Freund, "Confessing Animals: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview," Oral History Review 41, no. 1 (2014): 1–26; and Freund, "Under Storytelling's Spell? Oral History in a Neoliberal Age," Oral History Review 42, no. 1 (2015): 96–132. In both cases, conformity to a template approved by a hegemonic regime was rewarded while nonconformity was punished. In light of Bulag's study, it would be important to research whether and how Maoist thought and practice among Maoists in the West, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, influenced the development of oral history in Western Europe and North America.

79. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 109.

80. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 96.

81. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 96.

82. According to one of the anonymous reviewers of this article, "the wenshi ziliao materials—collected at various administrative levels—were published 'internally,' but they are widely available. There used to be a bookstore called wenshi ziliao shudian—in Beijing where you could buy books of this kind. Today these books are available in digital forms at Chaoxing Digital Library, for instance."

83. Joan Sangster, "Reflections on the Politics and Practice of Working-Class Oral Histories," The Canadian Oral History Reader, ed. Kristina Llwellyn, Alexander Freund, and Nolan Reilly (Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015), 119–140.

84. Stave, "Chinese Puzzle," 155.

85. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 262.

86. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 262. The status of this association remained unclear to me. CCOH staff told me that rather than an independent association, the association was a committee of the Society of Chinese Modern Culture and its influence was limited; personal correspondence with a CCOH staff member, November 30, 2017. According to Indira Chowdhury, who was the president of the International Oral History Association in 2015, she was invited to announce a Chinese Oral History Association as a branch of the IOHA officially, but despite CCOH efforts, she believes no association was actually established; personal email correspondence with Indira Chowdhury, November 28, 2017.

87. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101.

88. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101; Oral History Studies (口述史研究, Kou shu shi yan jiu), published by Yang Xiangyin in Chinese with an English table of contents

89. Jolly, "Hearing Her," 49.

90. The last three titles are listed in Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 263. The rest are in the possession of the University of Winnipeg Oral History Centre, gifts from the CCOH.

91. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 263; Thompson, Voice of the Past; Ritchie, Doing Oral History; Ritchie, Oxford Handbook of Oral History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011.)

92. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 262–3.

93. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 263.

94. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 265.

95. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 265.

96. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 269–270.

97. Wikipedia contributors, "Cui Yongyuan," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed November 26, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cui_Yongyuan.

98. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 2. My CCOH colleague clarified in her comments on my first draft that from Cui's point of view, oral history "was a blank in public space."

99. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 2. My CCOH colleague noted that this was a mistake; it should have said "interview group."

100. Bulag, "Can the Subalterns Not Speak?," 96.

101. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101.

102. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 2, 11, and personal communication.

103. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 3.

104. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 4.

105. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 5–9.

106. Cui Yongyuan Oral History Research Centre, "CCOH," 2.

107. Hui Lin, personal email correspondence with author, September 13, 2017.

108. Zuo, "Oral History Studies," 261–2.

109. Jolly, "Hearing Her," 49.

110. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 101

111. Thompson, Voice of the Past, 104–108.

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