Author interview: Alexander Freund on Oral History in China

In the latest issue of OHR, Alexander Freund’s “Long Shadows over New Beginnings? Oral History in Contemporary China,” adds to our knowledge of the global history of oral history, exploring twentieth and twenty-first century oral history practices in China, asserting that oral historians have much to learn by investigating the uses of oral history in China. Here he answers a few or our questions.

Briefly give our readers an overview of the current state of the field of oral history in China.

I think oral history in China is in an exciting but also somewhat precarious state. I do want to repeat that I am not an expert – far from it; my knowledge is really limited to a short visit to a major oral history center in Beijing and my review of the English-language literature on the history of oral history in China.

After a long period in which Chinese historians used oral evidence (as they did elsewhere), it seems that oral history came to play a more important role from the 1930s onward. Whatever form oral history took from the 1930s onward, it was shaped by the political conflicts at the time. Chinese researchers used oral history, as did outsiders studying certain aspects of Chinese society; best-known is Red Star Over China by the American journalist Edgar Snow.

Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China, 1937. (The Swedish edition, because its cover is just so cool).

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, oral history was influenced by the government’s attitude to history and memory, and, according to some scholars, the state abused interviewing and life-story telling as an instrument of disciplining and controlling the population. From the 1980s, Chinese practices became more influenced by Western, and particular American, scholarship. According to a number of Chinese colleagues I met in Beijing in the fall of 2017, oral history entered a new phase of massive expansion and popularization in the early twenty-first century.

There are now several oral history centers and many oral history projects at universities throughout the country. Several handbooks and oral history guides are available. Oral history is widely practiced outside of academia, in communities and schools. There is a steady stream of academic monographs and popular books, there are conferences, and there is an increasing use of oral history in public media, especially in television documentaries.

The history of oral history is much more interesting and complicated than we usually believe, and that we need to begin to research this history in much greater depth than we have so far.

As we know, oral history lends itself to undermining official narratives, be it intentionally or unintentionally. In the current political climate in China, it is unclear how this upsurge in oral history will fare in the future. As in past decades, much will depend on the government’s attitude. But it will also depend on the oral historians, and those I met were highly motivated, enthusiastic, and courageous.

What is the relationship of oral history in China to the discipline/method in the Anglo-American (or Western) culture? What makes oral history distinct in China?

That is difficult for me to judge, because I had almost no opportunity to see oral history “in action” or to listen to interviews. My impression is that the scholars I met at the oral history conference in Beijing wanted to ensure that their own standards of scholarship conformed to Western standards, both in terms of interviewing technology and methods, and in terms of theorizing narrative and memory. Translation is still a big obstacle, but an increasing number of oral history guides and handbooks are being translated. There are also some Chinese scholars whose Chinese-language works are based on the American and British literature.

I can only speculate about what makes oral history in China distinct, but I think that under the current government conducting research is becoming increasingly difficult. Our colleagues at the Cui Yongyuan Center for Oral History at Communication University in Beijing seemed to feel somewhat protected by the reputation of Cui Yongyuan, who until recently was a popular television host, and his personal interest in the center, but the South China Morning Post reported on 1 March that he has now been implicated in a judicial scandal. I hope this won’t have a negative effect on the oral history center named after him.

Some Western media report that the current government is increasingly shutting off access to non-Chinese websites. In the latest issue of Die Zeit, Xifan Yang reports that a whole army of censors in state agencies and private companies is turning the internet into a Chinese intranet where many internet users have never heard of Facebook, Google, or Youtube, all of which are blocked in China. And, according to Xifan, many don’t feel the need, because there are major Chinese platforms and apps that provide the same services.

While many academics use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites, and the government tolerates it to some degree, it is nevertheless increasingly dangerous. Even in the one-and-a-half years since my visit, internet access seems to have become much more restricted. I have not been able to access the website of the Cui Yongyuan Oral History Center since December 2017, and now I can no longer find it in a Google search. In fact, the Center is no longer listed on the Communication University’s website. I am still in sporadic email contact with the Center, so I know it has not been shut down. In mid-March, Hui Lin told me her center’s website has been down because the CUC’s website has been updated. She also told me that they use the popular Chinese social media platforms WeChat and Weibo to disseminate their research.

Can you describe how oral history was practiced in China during the era of Mao?

History, and with it oral history, went through several phases. The biggest memory project has been going on since the early 1950s, recording memories of the period before the Revolution of 1949 and later memories of life after 1949. Until 2000, thousands of interviewers collected some 300,000 narratives. But there were also other projects. From the late 1950s, there was a focus on the so-called Four Histories that collected memories of village, factory, local, and family life. From early on, the government removed the practice of history from the university and placed it in the community, encouraging and training peasants and workers to research their communities. From what I understand, the goal of the interviews was to celebrate the achievements of the Communist Party of China, but it is unclear whether or how these interviews were used. They do not seem to be publicly accessible, and it is not clear whether the interviews were used as “confessions” that could be employed for charging narrators with anti-communist activities and consequently punishing them.

How has the Cultural Revolution impacted the use of oral history as a research method in China, both during that period and in the decades since?

I think that it is really impossible to say at this moment, at least for an outsider like me. Was oral history repressed during the Cultural Revolution, as some historians suggest, or was it used to extract confessions? There is a range of interpretations, but it seems that at least between 1949 and the death of Mao in 1976, oral history was very clearly scripted by the Communist Party. We can only speculate about how such official scripts have shaped both interviewers and narrators in their oral history practices since then. But whether consciously or subconsciously, it must have had an effect on how people talk about their lives (and how interviewers ask about other people’s lives), in a way that is perhaps not too different from the ways in which popular and dominant scripts shape our own oral history practices in Canada, the United States, or Germany.

You write about an interesting connection between Studs Terkel and oral history in China. Please describe this to our readers.

Jan Myrdel, Report from a Chinese Village, 1965.

According to Luke Kwong from the University of Lethbridge, the Swedish journalist Jan Myrdal published an oral history about a Chinese village in 1965 that inspired Studs Terkel to write Division Street: America in 1967. In the 1980s, Terkel’s books were translated and published in China and in turn inspired Chang Hsin-hsin and Sang Yeh’s Peking Man Projekt. Bruce Stave, who lived in China in the mid-1980s, called Chang and Sang “the Studs Terkels of China.”

Studs Terkel, Division Street: America, 1967.

I think this just goes to show that the global history of oral history is much deeper and interconnected than we usually admit or know. I think more than any other survey, Paul Thompson’s and Joanna Bornat’s fourth edition of The Voice of Past document this fascinating history and global diversity of oral history. The more we delve into this history, I am sure, the more such connections we will find.

Can you describe the shift in the practice of oral history in China that occurred in the 1980s?

The way I understand it is that along with China’s opening in the post-Mao era, especially on the economic front, Chinese academia also tried to establish connections with the West. Visits by Bruce Stave and Paul Thompson in the 1980s seem to have had a lasting impact on oral history practices in China, at least in terms of method.

This accelerated in the early twenty-first century, perhaps as a result of China’s increasing digital economy. The Cui Yongyuan Center for Oral History has a full-time staff of about forty people, including television-trained camera teams responsible for filming interviews. I can’t say anything about the content of the interviews, but the recording quality and the resources available for research and archiving are astounding. The only comparable research center I can think of is the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which apparently was the inspiration for Cui, who, similar to Steven Spielberg, made his fortune as one of China’s most popular television hosts. Our colleagues at that center and from other oral history centers throughout China have a real desire to connect with colleagues from around the world to learn about oral history and to ensure that their practices meet international standards. I just recently heard from Hui Lin, the associate director of the center, that they currently have five teams interviewing people throughout China on the Chinese power system, the Beijing Museum, and the Vietnam War. Other teams will be training people from throughout the country during a four-day workshop in April, and prepare exhibits in their own, quite large exhibit space. They also seem to have established connections with colleagues at the British Library and the OHMS team at the University of Kentucky.

What is the relationship between oral histories of national narratives and those that are personal narratives?

I am not sure those can be easily disentangled. We live in a world that is still shaped in fundamental ways by national narratives, some of which are more dominant than others. They don’t determine our personal narratives, but they influence them in certain ways, similar to how local and family narratives as well as more global cultural narratives shape how we view ourselves and the world around us, and how we can talk about and narrate these worlds.

What do you hope Western oral historians—the English language readers of OHR—will take away from your article on the historiography of oral history in China?

I think the main point is this: The history of oral history is much more interesting and complicated than we usually believe, and that we need to begin to research this history in much greater depth than we have so far. Academic research requires continuous reflection on one’s methods. Such reflection is much more difficult if we do not know the history of our method and our field. I have been trying to contribute to this history in my own articles on the links between oral history and confessional practices and the storytelling industry. In one sense, this article on China is another part of this broader history. I am continuing this work by looking at the connections between oral history and the history of surveillance, and I also want to learn more about possible links between our post-World War Two “interviewing society” and interviewing practices in the decades and centuries before 1945. Not to push to Paul Thompson’s and Joanna’s Bornat’s book, but I really believe that chapters 2 and 3 in The Voice of the Past are a fantastic starting point for anyone wishing to unearth other histories of oral history and its many global interconnections.

Alexander 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 42.1 (2015). 

Featured image: Detail from “Advance Victoriously Along Chairman Mao’s Revolutionary Line in Literature and the Arts” (1968).