In “On History from Below,” (PDF) Eric Hobsbawm observed that grassroots history differs “from most of traditional history, inasmuch as there simply is not a ready-made body of material about it.” In this respect, Roderick MacFarquhar’s and my own Mao’s Last Revulsion is as traditional as it gets. It deals with the actions of a national political leader and everything that happened when Mao sought – in concert with some segments of China’s population, in conflict with others – to relegate revisionism to the scrapheap of history. The Communist Party he chaired had provided historians with a massive corpus of ready-made material for exploration under the name Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. For the years 1966–1968, equally impressive documentation was left behind by China’s revolutionary masses. (Joe Esherick, Paul Pickowicz, and Andy Walder provide an excellent assessment of all this material in their introduction to the anthology The Cultural Revolution as History.)
But does everything that happened in China back then really deserve to become part of the history of the “Cultural Revolution”? I do not think so. But where is the record of what happened that doesn’t? Where do we go in search of the stuff of an as yet unwritten extra-Cultural Revolutionary grassroots history? What are we to work with? Where (and what) is Hobsbawm’s not “ready-made body of material” that might help us get a better view of what grassroots life had been like for the great silent majority??? Fifteen years ago, in a review (PDF) of Feng Jicai’s Ten Years of Madness, I suggested that somebody should write an “anti-book” entitled Ten Years of Boredom, recording “a few uneventful lives.” Back then, I was still uncertain about where to look for records of lives that need not necessarily have been uneventful, but had somehow managed not to have everything about them determined by Mao Zedong’s grand design.
Below are links to a jumble of records that support their very own little slice of grassroots history. A mere 50 pages of text and images, these records may not look like much, but in combination with other material, these original notices from 1967 and 1968 of missing persons, lost children, escaped prisoners, wanted criminals, successful confidence tricksters, and unclaimed corpses and body parts surely document something very different from – and out of phase with – what we for too long simply assumed was “all of China in the grip of Maoist madness…”