Oral History in China: Contemporary Topics and New Hurdles

By Liwen, Yang | The Oral History Review, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Oral History in China: Contemporary Topics and New Hurdles


Liwen, Yang, The Oral History Review


Aside from being one of the most ancient civilizations in Asia, China, the most populous country in the world, is also home to the richest store of preserved historical records dating as far back as five thousand years. Over the past several thousand years, while maintaining a continuous, unbroken historical record, China has also established a rich tradition of oral history. In the fifty years since the founding of the People's Republic of China, oral history in China has enjoyed a flourishing resurgence with numerable achievements attesting to this renaissance.

The most significant oral history project conducted at present is the mass collection of literary and historical materials sponsored by the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The CPPCC is a patriotic united front which has brought together numerous democratic factions and people from all walks of life to participate in the political process. The collection of literary and historical materials in China really refers to the collection of oral historical sources, an objective that was first brought to the fore by the former premier, Zhou Enlai. At an informal luncheon held for senior members of the CPPCC in April 1959, Zhou pointed out that: "China has been going through a period of great social change ever since the Reform Movement of 1898, and it is our duty to preserve all manner of historical documents from this period."(1)

Carrying forth the spirit of Zhou's exhortation, CPPCC branches across the country began coordinating such a project. In July of that year, they created the CPPCC Research Committee for Literary and Historical Materials, inviting renowned historians to participate in the project. The committee made a unique request of all contributing writers: that the materials they submit be based upon their own personal experience, relying solely upon what they actually heard and saw, not upon their interpretation of existing written records. This innovative approach represented an attempt to accumulate a broad-based sampling of primary source material and to mobilize historical participants to contribute their knowledge and experience. The result, published in January 1960, was the first volume of the Literature and History Material Series. Through its accurate, truthful, and vivid accounts, this source of oral historical records earned high praise from society at large. Following in the tracks of the first volume, other local branches of the CPPCC began collecting local historical materials. As of the mid-1990s, 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.(2)

These materials cover an incredibly broad range of topics pertaining to modern and contemporary China, including the political, military, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and social events of the day, as well as biographical accounts. As many as 300,000 people contributed eyewitness accounts to the project which was administered by a staff totaling 3,000 people. The best of the materials that had been collected between 1960 and 1993 were selected for publication and edited into the twenty volume, thirty million character Library of Literature and History Material in China. The Library, issued in November 1995, earned wide acclaim from both Chinese and foreign scholars.

In the thirty years since Zhou Enlai's speech, the heart of the project focused on collecting materials from the period prior to the founding of the PRC; that is, the period covering 1898 to 1949. Once this fundamental portion of the project was completed in 1989, a meeting of the directors of the CPPCC Research Committee proposed that the focus of collection and publication be shifted to the post-1949 era. The committee recommended that, although it was important to continue collecting materials relating to the political and military events of the pre-1949 period, there were a number of other areas worth developing. …

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