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Wenshi ziliao participants at the local, regional, and national levels adapted the slogan “seeking truth from facts” to reconceive of editorial “truth seeking” in ways that reconciled objective historical inquiry with ideological imperatives. To build a nationalist United Front and balance liberal inclusivity with political control, organizers reinterpreted socialist concepts like “dialectical and historical materialism” to rationalize the reincorporation of alienated social groups and to accommodate diverse local perspectives. In the northeast borderland, this reworking of socialist ideology provided the conceptual tools for reevaluating narratives of nation, revolution, liberation, heroism, and wild frontier in ways that stretched the limits of the national Party-centered discourse. Local editors attempted to reconcile multiplicity and unity, while provincial editorial boards sought to impose more centralized control over the collection and editing process, regarding the pursuit of historical truth as contingent on “systematization and specialization.” While some local editors employed an inclusive interpretation of ""seeking truth from facts,"" others regarded informants and writers as an ideological problem of “confusing historical truth and falsity” and intervened in the oral history process with Party-approved narrative frameworks.
Chapter 1 situates the wenshi ziliao within the context of post-Mao cultural production and ideology in the 1980s. The party-state integrated professionalization and expertise-based specialization with political mobilization, and adopted a flexible experimental approach to reform in the economic and cultural arenas. Whether in the form of special economic zones, news and entertainment media structures, sites of official commemoration, or oral history projects, local elites and officials were given officially sanctioned space to undertake economic and cultural initiatives. This moment of innovation and experimentation involved the historical rehabilitation of entrepreneurs, intellectuals, Guomindang (GMD) affiliates, and other former “counterrevolutionaries.” Historical production by the People’s Political Consultative Conference and wenshi ziliao committees adhered to central guidance and local initiative. Through the PPCC’s mandate of “inspect, consult, and reeducate,” the state applied to the realm of historical investigation a combination of strategies for gauging local conditions, seeking popular legitimacy, and asserting political control. Wenshi ziliao organizers called for “united front” materials and interwove the stories of a wide spectrum of historical actors ranging from Party revolutionaries to former shop owners, gold miners, bandits, and GMD officials.
Differentiating wenshi ziliao from other kinds of history production such as gazetteers and Party histories, organizers emphasized the integration of oral history with political mobilization. Internal circulation embodied the diversity/unity strategy of the Party by creating a “safe zone” for celebrating inclusivity and plurality of expression in which Party officials, informants, writers, and editors could experiment locally with different variations of reform discourse in the realm of history. It contained heterogeneity within a framework of controlled distribution to a select group of government, Party, and academic institutions along with work units in targeted industries. Yet they remained ambivalent. The inclusiveness and diversity of the wenshi ziliao, while essential to the tasks of building a united front and bringing about political healing and reconciliation, made it difficult for the Party to control the political message that they conveyed. Unlike the previous Maoist campaigns of mass mobilization, the wenshi ziliao were a restricted approach to mobilization that involved a selective network of local elites and a semi-internal framework for publication and dissemination. They integrated the Maoist methods of mass line and investigative research with a more controlled, selective mobilization process.
Chapter 2 examines how informants, writers, and editors reconciled tensions in the party-state’s socialist, market reform, and nationalist discourses through reinterpreting the historical landscape of the northeast borderland. The northeast borderland's history of migration, colonialism, cross-border trade, and ethnic conflict provided a flexible tableau for reconciling aspects of post-Mao reform ideology. Drawing on entangled historical themes of competing states, colonialism, migration, and commerce, participants in the project integrated nationalist victimization narratives with celebrations of Chinese entrepreneurial achievement and commercial expansion that complemented and corroborated the Party’s political rehabilitation of persecuted elites. Wenshi ziliao writers and editors intervened in this potentially problematic colonial and extra-national past to redefine Party socialism in nationalist and regionalist terms of the northeast borderland’s becoming Chinese. This involved a collusion of informants with the editors and Party officials sponsoring the project, as former migrant entrepreneurs manipulated the flexible discursive landscape to weave together and make sense of their stories of personal life failures and successes. The northeast borderland as reappropriated past is tied to the story of the reconfiguration of the post-Mao state.
The Party exhibited a continued ambivalence toward local elites in the process of truth and reconciliation, combining a rhetoric of affective community with political study sessions and uncertainty about Party status. Wenshi ziliao were part of a broader set of PPCC strategies, including “democratic political supervision and consultation,” aimed at co-opting and mobilizing local elites. Wenshi ziliao organizers invoked this rhetoric to bring about political healing, naturalize ideological indoctrination, and reintegrate alienated scientists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs. This mobilization strategy involved the use of historical materials as legal evidence for “political rectification” and rehabilitation that was employed to generate political loyalties locally, nationally, and overseas; the subjection of wenshi ziliao participants to restorative rites of confession and redemption; and the adoption of interviewing strategies to balance inclusive accommodation with exclusionary political control through sentimental bonds between interviewer interviewed. In the specific context of the northeast borderland, the early influence of Russian and Japanese colonialism sparked questions about who belonged within an acceptable national narrative and brought to the fore local identities that deviated from the Party-centered version of history.
During my research for this book, a librarian commented on the continuing production of wenshi ziliao in China today. His evaluation was that the new crop of wenshi ziliao is not as high in quality or as valuable as the materials produced in the earlier phase. He reasoned that most of the people who had experienced important historical events had passed away, and that the historical writing is not as rich. Was there an implicit suggestion that wenshi ziliao “truths” about the post-1949 period are less authentic and more contrived than memories of the pre-Communist period that could be articulated more flexibly and with less stringent political constraints? In the post-transition period of a rising neoliberal authoritarianism, have wenshi ziliao lost their capacity to accommodate, mobilize, and reconcile multiple “truths” about the past?
Reconstructing the past involved the reconsolidation of the post-Mao party-state’s bureaucratic apparatus through the systematic mobilization of state agencies and social organizations at the county, regional, provincial, and national levels. The balance between cross-departmental cooperation, differentiation, and specialization in the administrative organization of wenshi ziliao contributed to the production of locally distinctive accounts of commercial vitality and colonial flavor that resonated with the multifaceted nationalist and market reform agendas of post-Mao historical identity. These tensions were evident in the vertical relationships between wenshi ziliao offices at the county, provincial, and national levels. The national PPCC leadership’s policy of devolving responsibility to the local level was intended to drive national political reintegration from the bottom up, yet it also promoted the strengthening of local and regional identities whereby the goal of national reconsolidation became remobilized for the regional project of revitalizing a distinctive northeast/Manchuria historical consciousness. Wenshi ziliao practices of knowledge production, memory politics, and identity formation, balancing grassroots-based practices with top-down hierarchical control, speak to flexibility and resilience in post-Mao governance strategies.
In the context of China’s reintegration into the global market and thawing relations with the Soviet Union, wenshi ziliao participants revived the concept of “northern Manchuria” as a distinctive cultural space where Chinese entrepreneurial innovation flourished in a cosmopolitan environment alongside Russian influences. Editors used this memory-space, with its historical implications of regional distinctness apart from China proper and its associations with Russian colonialism, to promote regional claims to economic and cultural development that both conformed to and stood apart from nationalist narratives. Wenshi ziliao organizers re-conceived of the northeast borderland as a history of “liberation struggle” and “heroic resistance” that embodied China’s coming into being as a modern nation. Redefining marginality as centrality, they spoke to the historical concept of northern Manchuria as a unique geopolitical space outside of China proper while reclaiming it as a uniquely Chinese space at the forefront of the nationalist resistance story. This informed the ways in which local wenshi ziliao participants represented non-Han and non-Manchu ethnic minorities. Local historical investigators alternated between framing this ethnic diversity of non-Chinese traditions and histories in broad nationalist terms and incorporating it within narratives of local particularity.
In the early 1980s, in the town of Heihe on China’s northeast border with the Soviet Union in what was formerly northern Manchuria (Bei Man), a teacher, editor, and local Party official named Liu Banghou unearthed documents containing transcribed interviews that had been hidden away for more than a decade during the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Fifteen years earlier, the Heilongjiang provincial government had sent a group of researchers to the Heihe vicinity to seek out and interview elderly residents who had migrated to the area before 1900 from “China Proper” (mostly from Shandong and Hebei Provinces). Specifically, they targeted individuals whose destinations had included Blagoveshchensk, the city directly across the river from Heihe on the Russian side, and an area just to the east of Blagoveshchensk formerly known as the “Sixty-Four Villages East of the River” (jiangdong liushisi tun) that had long been a source of dispute between the two countries.
In the 1980s, as China transitioned to the post-Mao era, a state-sponsored oral history project led to the publication of local, regional, and national histories. They took the form of written and transcribed personal testimonies of events that preceded the turmoil of both the Cultural Revolution and, in many cases, the Communist victory in 1949. Known as wenshi ziliao, these publications represent an intense process of historical memory production that has received little scholarly attention. Hitherto unexamined archival materials and oral histories reveal unresolved tensions in post-Cultural Revolution reconciliation and mobilization, informing negotiations between local elites and the state, and between Party and non-Party organizations. Taking the northeast Russia–Manchuria borderlands as a case study, Martin T. Fromm examines the creation of post-Mao identities, political mobilization, and knowledge production in China.
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