To jiantao, so Liang Shiqiu’s 1971 New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary tells us, is to make a “self-examination” or engage in “soul-searching.” In the PRC, the standard translation of the corresponding noun has for many years been a “self-criticism.” Somewhat surprisingly, the 300-page Handbook of Commonly Used Terms in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (Chinese–English) from 1968 does not include a separate entry for it, only for the phrase “sham self-criticism but real attack” (假检讨，真进攻). Perhaps this failure of the lexicographer to appreciate the value of a term indicating a self-critical admission or apology was one subtle indicator of the ubiquitous lack of civility in late Maoist China. Then again, maybe it was not. In democracies too, citizens – and those holding public office are no exception – can on occasion become pathologically averse to performing a jiantao, some even going so far as to state they “never” will, adding for good measure “I don’t care what the facts are.”
The self-criticisms of prominent politicians are not what concern us here as social historians, but rather those written by ordinary Chinese. At first, original jiantao prove not all that easy to locate. One of the reasons for this may be that they more often than not concern matters that were if not trivial, then certainly not of major political import. As a result, their “survival rate” in the archives has by comparison been low. But here and there, in discarded personnel files and the like still on sale in urban flea markets, they do turn up and make for fascinating – sometimes funny and entertaining, sometimes somber and depressing – reading. Josef Stalin had cautioned in 1928 against what he called “vulgarizing the slogan of self-criticism,” but by comparison, it seems the real danger when ordinary Chinese “self-criticised” was not so much about perverting the meaning of the slogan as it was about keeping the substance of the criticism from becoming too vulgar.
By the late 1980s, jokes about fake jiantao written to order by unscrupulous wordsmiths in the Cultural Revolution (2 mao for a plain one, 5 mao for a thoroughly soul-searching self-denunciation) had become common and popular in China. The links below are to genuine self-criticisms, scanned here from archive files weeded in the immediate post-Mao years. In the first, a grocery store employee in Harbin self-criticizes for mismanaging refrigeration and for allowing milk and selected other foodstuffs to go bad. In the second, a Nanjing factory employee self-criticizes after a stay in a hotel in Wuxi where he had falsely claimed to own a pair of socks left behind in his room by another guest. In the third, a man working at a train depot outside Beijing admits apologetically to being a dirty old man. The fourth link is to a perfunctory self-criticism by a gambler, and the fifth to an apology by a cadre who abused his position during the post-Great Leap Forward famine.