- Maoism at the Grassroots: Everyday Life in China's Era of High Socialism ed. by Jeremy Brown and Matthew D. Johnson
To what extent do we understand China during the Mao era (generally 1949–1976) from a historical perspective rather than as a political science issue (e.g., international relations)? This has long been a question for historians to answer. This edited collection includes articles by scholars from different backgrounds and disciplines. It takes a bottom-up perspective and focuses on everyday contexts, aiming to reevaluate and reconsider the "grassroots society" in Mao's China. Different from traditional China studies and social science approaches, which are often criticized for using a "top-down approach" and therefore for being too "state-focused," the contributors of this book make great efforts to get rid of these established perspectives and to shed new light on the study of the first 30 years of the People's Republic of China.
The two editors clearly state in the introduction that they found "more diversity and variety in behavior, outlook, and viewpoints" among ordinary people, and that the "extent of routine violence, resistance, and repression" may be underestimated by previous scholarship (p. 2). In short, Brown and Johnson convincingly focus on three key words—everyday life, the grassroots, and high socialism—to describe the main contributions of their edited volume. To look at ordinary people's lives from a bottom-up perspective is not an unfamiliar approach in current studies of social history or new cultural history, yet these authors are not satisfied with merely referring to it. In addition to their efforts to approach politics "through the eyes of villagers and urbanites" instead of "elite policy-makers and propagandists" (p. 3), they successfully explore the complexity and variability of the intertwined party-state and society. Through that lens, local officials or cadres could be representatives of the state, but also neighbors, commune members, or mediators between national policy and ethnic interests. The term "grassroots," on the other hand, has a broad definition that goes beyond the lowest level of party-state hierarchies. Methodologically speaking, it refers to "a localized 'contact zone' where nonelite individuals interact with more powerful social structures" (p. 5). In terms of sources, the grassroots approach also underlines the significance of using ordinary people's diaries, personnel dossiers, Red Guard leaflets, and so forth to investigate overlooked [End Page 158] marginal histories. The third term, "high socialism," was used to depict the period (from the mid-1950s to 1980) characterized by "state ownership of property, party-state fusion, the politicization of everyday life, and a planned economy that privileged heavy urban industry" (p. 6). According to the editors, the idea of "high socialism" was also partly inspired by Gail Hershatter's concept of "campaign time" from her book The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011) and the awareness that different events such as agricultural collectivization, the Cultural Revolution, or rehabilitation (平反 pingfan) may have had a different significance to different people at the same time. However, since the above-mentioned characteristics do not much challenge our general understanding of Mao era's China, the significance of raising this term as one of the major contributions to the field may be somewhat overestimated.
In my own consideration, one of the greatest contributions of this collection is the wide-scale usage of firsthand materials such as archives, original court files, and personal diaries, some of which are no doubt fresh and valuable. The opening chapter, written by Kuisong Yang, uses storytelling narratives to depict the entire life of Qiren Zang, who was a once Communist Youth League secretary. Based on personal archives, including a résumé, written confession, table of investigation clues, and so on, Yang reconstructs Zang's life in a way of life-track focus that has rarely been done by historians. With analysis and description based on these rich materials, Yang's argument...