Periodizing modern China


Satirical Chinese saying, c2010.

In my book Daoist priests of the Li family I stress the importance of fieldwork on the modern period, not just attempting to imagine the rosy distant past. Talking of the modern period (p.141):

Just as historians document ritual change throughout the medieval and late imperial periods, we find constant adaptation in the years before and after the Communist revolution of 1949. Similarly, a detailed account of over three decades of ritual practice since the liberalizing reforms of the early 1980s reveals continuing changes.

Chinese peasants have a different conception of time from the periodization we find in official history. Li Manshan described his wedding in 1971 as “after the end of the Cultural Revolution”; “land reform” is often used to mean the privatization around 1980; and now when people mention “liberation” they often mean after the end of the commune system in the 1980s. Now that the Maoist era is a rather distant memory, it may seem like a blip in the long sweep of history—but it has left deep scars.

Similarly, while in the official story the term “three years of difficulty” (1959–61) makes a veiled recognition of the devasting famine, it means little to many peasants, since they suffered from severe food shortages right through from the early years of collectivization until the collapse of the commune system.

One thought on “Periodizing modern China

  1. Pingback: The joys of indexing | Stephen Jones: a blog

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