Zehao Zhou 2015-05-22 12:38:31
May 2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong led one of the most cataclysmic events in human history. Mao, then chairman of the Communist Party of China, launched an effort to preserve the “true” Communist ideology and to purge the country of ideological opponents. On the eve of this historic anniversary, access to vast amounts of archival sources on the early years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains off limits to the public and researchers alike. Deemed “sensitive,” “internal,” or “classified” by the regime, most essential archival sources have been kept out of the public’s reach. Because critically important documents have been designated as internal documents, quality research on the Cultural Revolution has been unnecessarily challenging. This decades-long government stranglehold on archival sources was finally broken in December 2014 when the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, with technical support from the Universities Service Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, completed its four-part database series, The Database for the History of Contemporary Chinese Political Campaigns, 1949–1976. Sixteen Years in the Making The birth of this seminal database series on the history of political campaigns in early PRC is a milestone sixteen years in the making. It consists of four subdatasets: The Chinese Cultural Revolution Database, The Chinese Anti-Rightist Campaign Database, The Chinese Great Leap Forward and Great Famine Database, and The Database of Chinese Political Campaigns from Land Reform to State-Private Joint Ownership. In total, the four databases comprise more than 32,000 archival documents with approximately 107,460,000 Chinese characters. New sources are added on a monthly basis and large updates will be made annually, making it not only the first database series on early PRC, but the most comprehensive and upto- date one as well. This collection of archival sources encompasses documents in several broad categories, ranging from official directives and reports and speeches by Mao and other senior party leaders, to local party archival materials, Red Guard texts, and a plethora of other internal and classified documents. The databases are available in CD-ROM format and through online subscription and are searchable in both English and Chinese as well as by subject, date, author, title, keyword, place, and organization. Before the arrival of the database series—available in research libraries across the world —researchers and scholars studying the PRC faced two major challenges: the lack of accessible archival sources and the reliability and scope of the sources they did manage to find. The advent of this series has largely eliminated this problem. Shedding Light on PRC The archival documents included in the series were gradually, and often painstakingly, obtained from countless sources over the past sixteen years. They include private collections, international donors, purchases from open markets, local archives, Chinese government publications, and collections in university libraries around the world. The database’s chief editor, Yongyi Song, who is an avid collector of Cultural Revolution materials and was jailed for several years during the Cultural Revolution for organizing underground book clubs, also donated his entire collection of Cultural Revolution texts, many of which are primary sources contemporary with the Cultural Revolution itself. This repository for information on the darkest decades in PRC history sheds light on a number of complex historical issues. \Through classified government documents, it provides evidence of cannibalism during both the Great Famine of 1959–1962 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966–1976. Through the transcripts of Mao’s private conversation with American reporter Edgar Snow, some of Mao’s true reasons for starting the Cultural Revolution and waging a war against his own party and comrades are revealed. Likewise, evidence of mass executions of millions of people and the existence of a “death quota” in the so-called Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries during the Korean War comes to light through documents, such as Mao’s top-secret telegram “Instructions on the ratio of killings,” dated April 20, 1951, in which he discussed the assigned rate of executions. An Archival Milestone Particularly noteworthy is that this archival database series came into being when the regime in question is still in power, unlike in other instances, such as when the Stasifiles became available after the collapse of the former East Germany. Equally noteworthy are the creators of this archival milestone—a small group of academic librarians and college professors of Chinese descent who felt duty-bound to use their library, academic, and information technology skills to collect, compile, preserve, and disseminate the archival sources of a closed society through the creation of this database. They are survivors of the Cultural Revolution and once lived through the tumultuous historical periods that the series covers. Together, they overcame myriad challenges that emerged during its creation, including funding, copyright issues, censorship, and government interference, which culminated in the detention and imprisonment of Yongyi in 1999 by the Chinese government, which charged him with “stealing state secrets,” and the ensuing international rescue campaign led by the American Library Association, American Association of University Professors, and the International Federation of Library Associations. Scholars from around the world have recognized the significance of this unique archival treasure trove and have given it critical acclaim. Professor Andrew Walder of stanford University calls it “an extraordinary achievement.” Professor Jonathan Unger of Australian National University describes it as “an accomplishment of the first order,” while professor Frank Dikotter of the University of Hong Kong views it as “nothing less than a monument.” * * * Perhaps Margaret Mead’s often-quoted observation still rings true here, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Thanks to this small group of thoughtful and committed academics who felt called to embark on this historical project and toiled over it for sixteen years, scholars of the PRC and the Maoist era around the world now have access to previously unavailable primary sources on all of the most violent, tumultuous, and important phases of PRC between 1949 and 1976. It is only fitting that Roderick Macfarquhar, a preeminent Harvard professor and leading scholar on Cultural Revolution studies, notes in his preface to the database series that the research community owes Yongyi and his fellow editors “a considerable debt of gratitude.”
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.