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100. Grassroots Documents and PRC History Methods: A Roundtable Discussion

Fri, March 17, 12:45 to 2:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Mezzanine, Willow Centre

Session Submission Type: Roundtable Session


Over the last two decades, the historiography of the People’s Republic of China has shifted focus from elite politics to the experiences of ordinary people. This transition has coincided with a proliferation of grassroots archives--including diaries, personnel dossiers, police files, and self-criticisms--in the private sphere. Many who study PRC history have amassed their own collections; several Chinese universities have begun repositories. These resources have allowed PRC history to thrive despite the difficulties of working in state-operated archives. This roundtable addresses the challenges and benefits of gathering grassroots documents, sometimes called "garbology." We will open with 30 minutes of comments from the panelists.

Pickowicz will discuss two California collections: personal manuscripts by a north China peasant between 1944 and 1990 at UC San Diego, and Stanford's rich "cadre dossiers." Schoenhals will comment on the dangers of archival fetishism and the circumstances under which historians should consider grassroots materials an alternative--or even superior--source. In addition to speaking about the diversity in fifty county-level archives that he has been visiting for a decade, Cao will share unusual materials such as those from the Ministry of Supervision and local courts, making clear that, whether government-held or privately collected, sources charting processes can be more valuable than those documenting outcomes.

Based on her recent field experiences, Wang will offer observations about the practical challenges facing a junior scholar looking for, acquiring, and effectively using documents on the market. Brown will explore the promises and pitfalls he has encountered in building a personal collection of accident reports, safety manuals, and Cultural Revolution archives. Leese will discuss his collection on redressing Maoist-era injustices, then turn to obstacles in using grassroots sources, such as privacy issues and the temptation to build arguments around a source taken out of context. As Leese will describe, a digital platform for sharing, transcribing, and editing documents could address these problems.
Next, there will be 30 minutes of audience comments and questions. Panelists will then have another 15 minutes to respond to one another and to the audience before the floor is opened for the remainder of the session.

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