China Conversations

In China, No Never Means No10 min read

Zhou Xun, in conversation with Jonathan Chatwin

Zhou Xun is a Reader in the Department of History at the University of Essex. She is among a growing number of historians who are pioneering the history of the People’s Republic of China through the use of new oral and archival evidence. Based on thousands of archival documents and hundreds of interviews, her recent works include The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History (2012) and Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine, 1958-1961: An Oral History (2014). She is currently completing a book titled Health for the Nation: Health Intervention and Delivery in the PRC under Mao, 1949-1983.

Did you always have an interest in Chinese history?

My first degree was actually nothing to do with history; it was in librarianship, which has been hugely useful in preparing me to do archival research – I walk straight into the archives and know where to start! When I came to the UK, my academic interest was more around the history of religion, in particular Judaism. Through that I met a group of Jewish people who were born in Manchuria and became interested in their story. I initially wanted to pursue a PhD on the subject, but as I started, I changed my mind as I came across a vast amount of material on Chinese perception of the Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries; it was this that really began my interest in modern Chinese history.

You’ve worked in a number of different areas of modern Chinese history – what’s the common thread among your research areas?

One project tends to inspire another; I’ll be reading something and come across something else that interests me. That’s often how it works. It’s really based on where the sources lead me.

For many of your projects, you have gone out into rural China to secure first-hand accounts of events such as the Great Leap Forward. How do you approach these discussions and build up the requisite trust?

I generally found that people aren’t reluctant to talk about it. That is partly, I think, because after all those years of, as they say, eating bitterness, they welcome the opportunity to talk openly about it. Sometimes, of course, it’s sensitive because of things that happened within families, or things that they did, so they might not want to talk to the people close to them. I remember one man who was very excited to tell me how he felt he was cleverer than his brother, because he managed to steal more food during the famine – but that’s not the sort of thing you’d mention in a family discussion.

So being a little more distant from the situation could be helpful?

Yes, and particularly because many of the people I interviewed were quite elderly, they wanted to get their story out. For them it’s a form of social healing, to finally shed that burden. I’ve also learned to just let people talk, so I normally ask them something quite general to begin with, not related to the topic, and I try to listen carefully to them and use what they have told me as a way into talking about the famine, rather than having a strict set of questions. Once you get people started, they tend to be quite talkative. Some of them did occasionally break down during interviews, and I would then try to comfort them or step back and let them be as appropriate; I’ve learned not to push people.

In terms of the two big periods of social upheaval in the Mao era, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, do you notice any difference in people’s willingness to discuss their involvements?

People are generally more open in discussions about the Cultural Revolution, I would say. Partly, I think it’s because there is an official version of the story which allows them to talk more openly about it. [Ed: In the official Chinese Communist Party history of the Cultural Revolution, much of the blame is laid at the door of the Gang of Four, particularly Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, and Lin Biao, once Mao’s heir apparent who died suspiciously in a plane crash in 1971.]

How did you go about recording your interviews? Pulling out a tape recorder can often alter the dynamic of a conversation.

I did generally tape them. For most people, they didn’t really mind being taped. Often, especially in more rural villages, they were quite curious about this machine I was using and quite a few of them wanted to have a look, so I would let them play with it and hear their recorded voice. It’s actually quite a good way to break the ice. I’m also trying to develop different techniques of using cameras for interviews. One way is to get people involved in the process so that people feel it is a collaboration of sorts.

How often did you find that the children of your subjects were unaware of the stories their parents were telling you?

The majority of the children didn’t know; they often didn’t want to listen. They felt it was just another old story from their elderly parents. Sometimes during the interview process, the children would become really interested. Others felt uncomfortable with their parents talking about these things; they felt perhaps it was too political, and were worried that they could be reported. Although, I must say that was quite rare.

How challenging does the current political situation make your research?It depends on where you go. In general, it has become more difficult. Lots of files I read for Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine have been withdrawn, you can’t even see them on the catalogue anymore. In other places, they might just limit what you can access; in smaller towns it tends to be a little more open still. In most of the provincial archives, though, most of the Party committee files have been withdrawn.

Why do you think the government feels the need to restrict access in this way?

It all happened in the autumn of 2012, with the leadership change [when Xi Jinping came to power]. I remember very clearly going into an archive shortly after that, and the archivist showed me a directive from Beijing saying that anything that has political content couldn’t be read for academic purposes. But of course almost everything has something to do with politics in China! There are other restrictions too; even with my current research area of health, I have a daily limit on what materials I can read, and they don’t allow it to be photocopied.

It must be frustrating, knowing that the material is there but that you’re simply not allowed to see it.

It can be frustrating, but in some ways I quite enjoy playing the game; I like the challenge of trying to get around the restrictions. I’ve tried all kinds of tactics. For example, when I was studying the famine, I wouldn’t go in and tell them I was studying the famine: instead I would say that I wanted to look at state grain procurement (tonggou tongxiao 统购统销). Most of the librarians have no idea what I meant by that and so they would just say OK. I also tried to spend time chatting to them and build a relationship; once they’re familiar with you, they don’t watch you so closely. For this project, when I was researching in smaller archives, I would become quite forceful if they tried to avoid letting me see files; if they told me there were too many files, for example, I would say “Ah, I can see that you’re just plain lazy!” Often that would work. For them, of course, it’s just a boring job, and they enjoy exercising whatever little power they have. In China, no never means no – you have to haggle.

Reading accounts of the Great Leap Forward is difficult enough; how did you deal emotionally with researching it first hand?

It’s very difficult. You’re dealing with human beings, and you have to be sensitive to their emotions, but as an interviewer you also have to keep a distance. You can be empathetic, but at the same time you have to keep yourself calm. It’s easy to say, but very difficult to do, or I personally found it very difficult. During the research trips, I tried not to think about the subject in the evening. I would go to a good restaurant with a friend, or go for a massage, or read a good book – anything to take my mind off it.

How accurate did you find people’s recollections of the era?

It’s a long time ago now, of course, but there were also so many different political campaigns and movements at the time. It’s quite easy for people to get muddled up in terms of what happened when. But what’s most interesting for me is how they experience it personally, not the chronological order. The majority of people knew of the big political moments, but they tended to narrow it down to their own experience and what happened in their village. There are local ways of remembering what happened, and often different areas will have different words by which they refer to the famine. I remember I was in Anhui during an interview trip once and the villagers were finding it hard to understand what I was asking about – then someone produced the local word, and everybody’s eyes lit up.

You’re working now on healthcare initiatives in the Mao era. It’s a subject that perhaps people know less about than other aspects of that period. Can you tell us a little more?

The centerpiece of the PRC’s public health campaign was the anti-schistosomiasis campaign, which began in 1955 when Mao was mounting the ‘Socialist High Tide’ to bring the socialist revolution to the countryside. They singled out this disease, as it is transmitted by working in the paddy fields, as well as the traditional way of life for the farming communities living along the Yangtze. It was decided that the national goal should be to eradicate it. Schistosomiasis afflicted people in many parts of the world.  It was thought it would bring prestige to the country if China could be the first in the world to eliminate it. They declared that the goal of eradication would be achieved in seven years – but obviously it didn’t happen. In fact, towards the end of the Great Leap Forward the morbidity rate was rising sharply. Essentially, by this time the rural health system had collapsed, and people had turned back to local traditional practitioners. From these localized initiatives the “barefoot doctors” movement emerged, and the Communist Party essentially adopted a system that people had already shown they wanted and rolled out locally – all of which speaks to the legitimacy the CCP lost in the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. ∎

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Header photo courtesy of the author.