The Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology | Lund University

Life Stories (自传)

In “Working, Struggling, Becoming: Stalin-Era Autobiographical Texts”, historian Jochen Hellbeck wrote that “both numerically and in terms of sociological breadth – the early Soviet regime engendered the largest collective autobiographical project undertaken in modern history. Only the Chinese Communist case may have rivalled the Soviet autobiographical project in terms of the sheer number of autobiographies sponsored by the regime.” In a short newspaper article published in Beijing in January 2013, I argued that the brief autobiographical life stories that millions of Chinese put on paper at the request of the authorities in the first decades of the PRC had indeed constituted an even bigger project in terms of simple numbers alone. They were written down – scribbled or scrawled by the barely literatre, written in beautiful xingshu brushstrokes by the educated – when seeking membership in the Communist Party or Youth League, when applying for a job, when undergoing an evaluation for possible promotion, in the course of a Rectification Campaign, or on any number of similar occasions…. Today they constitute a fascinating and largely untapped source for social historians. In terms of pure content, the stories may primarily turn out to be of interest to those who study the pre-1949 decades, but as a major nationwide communist party project, their value to historians of the PRC must not be underrated. And they will be loved by students of just how much or little ordinary people ever managed to internalize and master the politically correct language of the day (the Chinese version of what in the Russian case has been called “speak Bolshevik”), and of how they struggled to tell their own lives as meaningful stories with its help.

The place to look for these neglected life stories is in discarded personnel files, employee records, dossiers compiled in the course of the mid-1950s Elimination of Counterrevolutionaries campaign, and similar places. The general point of departure for an analysis of any specific story has to be the CCP’s instructions as to how they were to be structured and what was to go into them: initially those instructions were very vague, but in due course they became increasingly detailed. The first two links below are to two slightly different, but both equally official, sets of instructions to cadres, the first from Jiangsu (ca. 1956), the second from Heilongjiang (ca. 1958). All of the remaining links are to original life stories written between 1948 and 1970 by Chinese from all walks of life – from school teachers to a former prostitute. I have intentionally not anonymized them, as I am silently hoping that perhaps someone will recognize a grandparent or long lost uncle and get in touch.

Those who read Swedish may be interested in knowing that in 2011, my students and I translated and published a selection of these life stories under the title Nine Lives: Life Stories for Official Use – Fragments from Personnel Files in Mao’s China. For our anthology, all in Swedish, I wrote a general introduction providing historical background and context, as well as brief introductions to each story, based on additional information in the files from which they had been salvaged. Free copies are still available on request.