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Workshop “How to write a People’s History of the PRC?”

Workshop at the University of Vienna, Institute for East Asian Studies, October 26 2013

Saturday October 26

10.00-10.15 Introduction and Welcome: Felix Wemheuer

Part One: How to rewrite (people’s) history?

10.15-11.45 Keynote Lecture and Discussion:

Klaus Mühlhahn (FU Berlin): Rethinking the History of The People’s Republic of China

Comment: Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik (University of Vienna)

11.45-12.00 Coffee Break

12.00-12.40 David Mayer (University of Vienna): The ‘people’, a late-comer in Marxist historiography: Emergence and development of debates about ‘people’s history’ in historical context

12.40-14.00 Lunch Break

Part Two: Documents and Archives

14.00-15.15 Keynote Lecture and Discussion:

Daniel Leese (University of Freiburg): 'One man's trash is another man's treasure': Working with archival and quasi-archival sources from the early PRC.

15.15-15.30 Coffee Break

Part Three: Foreigners and Diplomats: A Part of People’s History?

15.30-16.30 Paper and Discussion

Jon Howlett (University of York): Compromised compradores’: Westernised Chinese elites before and after the Communist Revolution

Jiagu Richter (University of Vienna): Revolutionization in Chinese Embassies in 1966 and Its Impact


Part Four: Making Sense of Memory

16.30-17.10 Agnes Schick-Chen (University of Vienna): From memory and perception to the 1978-divide

17.10-17.30 Break


17.30-18.30 Closing Discussion (Chair: Felix Wemheuer)

19.30 Dinner


Abstracts (Paper)


David Mayer: The ‘people’, a late-comer in Marxist historiography: Emergence and development of debates about ‘people’s history’ in historical context

The idea of writing ‘people’s history’ has an intricate history itself. Although turning to non-elite actors and taking their perspectives in historical narratives might be easily devised from the theoretical and political interventions of Karl Marx and others it took a surprisingly long time for the notion of ‘people’s history’ to emerge. It was only in the 1930s that the idea started to be discussed (in Anglophone contexts) and it took some further 30 years to establish itself firmly in the historical sciences. ‘Peoples’ histories’, in that sense, are late-comers. This was, of course, intimately linked not only to the development of Marxist historiography but to broader debates in Marxism, the labour movements and the left.

This paper will trace the emergence and development of discussions about ‘people’s history’ as part of the general history of Marxist historiography. It will pay special attention to historical-political contexts. Drawing on examples from Western Europe, North America, Latin America and the GDR I will discuss questions such as: Why did the turn to the ‘people’ in historical narratives happen so late? What was the political-ideological rationale for this turn in the respective situations? Is the very notion an essential part of Marxist discussions of history or only a neighbour, half alien, half friend? What is the relation between ‘people’s history’, the history of revolutions, the history of political movements, and romanticist notions of historical processes?


Jon Howlett: ‘Compromised compradores’: Westernised Chinese elites before and after the Communist revolution

This paper explores the ways in which the 1949-1956 transition was experienced by Westernised elites who had worked with foreign businesses and other organisations in China. They were the products of an internationalised China. They spoke English and appropriated foreign affectations and names, as well as ideas about ‘gentlemanliness’. They were not ‘intellectuals’ or ‘capitalists’ per se, but facilitators working in a complex web of Sino-foreign relations and as such, they have largely been neglected by historians.

This paper will attempt to recover the history of this group. Kirby once began an article with the sentence ‘Nothing mattered more.’ than internationalisation before 1949. What happened to internationalised Chinese in the early PRC? There were significant opportunities for people with the right skills under New Democracy, but their situation worsened as the Sino-foreign grey area they occupied became occluded. Paradigms of class struggle are insufficient to explain the complexity of the situations faced by these people and of the choices they made. This paper is designed to offer an opportunity to think about how best to rescue the history of a group that was marginalised in the 1950s and that remains so in our historiography.  Comparisons will be drawn with similar groups elsewhere in the Communist world


Jiagu Richter: Revolutionization in Chinese Embassies in 1966 and Its Impact

As I ponder over the question of how to write a People’s History of Maoist China and the related issue of how to rescue history from the Party State, it comes more and more to my mind that not just the marginalized people who were not included in the official narratives of the history, but also part of the history of the people within the state apparatus whose experiences were not recorded or neglected intentionally. That war part of the Chinese history and may have played a not negligible role fin the policy formation and its execution.

Chinese diplomats nowadays have similar life style and comparable income as western diplomats. However this practice has a history of only one decade. Diplomats of Maoist China had a quite different life as diplomats of other countries. In the first year of the Cultural Revolution (1966), two letters from leftist movement of foreign countries came to Mao Zedong and served as fuse of a “Revolutionization of foreign affairs” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in Chinese Embassies abroad.  It, among other things, caused the reduction of salaries to minimum subsidy for basic life and a change of way of life for diplomats. The way of life and financial conditions of diplomats influenced surely the way of thinking of diplomats and their conduct of diplomacy as well. How was the “Revolutionization” carried out and what was the influence on the behaviour of the diplomats? It is a topic never researched and it is certainly part of the history of Maoist China, which should be rescued from the official narratives of the Party State.  That is the research topic I would like to present to the Workshop.


Agnes Schick-Chen: From memory and perception to the 1978-divide

The essay starts off from the issue of memory and perception, arguing that these two should not be treated on an equal basis in the context of appreciating historical events and developments. Remembering is a process that takes place at a later point in time, which creates a natural distance between memory as its outcome and the object of memory; the information produced is “contaminated by” but also a very useful source on perception of what has – or has not – happened during the period in between. The act of perceiving an event taking place in one’s immediate surroundings, on the other hand, is something that is taking place or “really happening” and having an impact on actions and attitudes at the time under investigation. In this sense, perception is part of what could be called a “lived experience” rightly addressed under the topic of methodological problems. Cinematic expression of experience is brought up for discussion as a possible source on issues like the political as part of “private” or social live, or rather the social sphere as an arena of “political live”. The contrasting perception of “private” and “public (political)” live then leads to the question of whether a People’s History should be written from an individual perspective or adopt a collective approach with the possibility of focussing on (or omitting?) certain groups. Finally, the conceptualisation of history as a summary of individual experiences would imply relying on perceptions of and reactions to events like the 3rd plenum of the 11th CC for (re-)establishing the year 1978 as a chronological divide.

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