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JMSC’s ‘Birthday Papers’ project helps explore China’s Cultural Revolution 50 years on

JMSC students and alumni are using their parents’ and grandparents’ histories to mark the upcoming 50th anniversary of the start of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

The project has grown out of class assignments when students were asked to research original news reports from their parents’ and grandparents’ birth dates, and use those as a basis for analysis of the historical period. All articles, written in Chinese, are published online.

Qian Gang teaches students how to ‘read newspapers’ in a different way during one of his classes

Qian Gang teaches students how to ‘read newspapers’ in a different way during one of his classes

Given the approaching anniversary, the project is currently focusing on the lead-up to the Cultural Revolution, starting with events in the late 1950s, and going through to the end of the Cultural Revolution itself in 1976. The old stories give students a window into the lives and socio-economic conditions in China at the time their forebears were born.

Two papers a week have been published in chronological order since January and will continue until 16 May, when then CPC leader Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution with the ‘May 16 Notification’ of 1966. The announcement to the country warned that enemies of communism had infiltrated the Party, and summarised his ideological justification for the Cultural Revolution.

The project will continue after 16 May to publish articles using the same method.

‘The idea of “returning to the scene” is an important aspect in the teaching of history,’ explained project leader Qian Gang, Director of the JMSC’s China Media Project. ‘The Birthday Papers are an opportunity for students to have closer contact with history—seeking historical evidence, truth and interest in the written record of history.’

Some papers focus on key figures, some look at a particular event, and others deal with language trends by analysing the frequency of key words and terms constituting the political and social lexicons of the time.

‘Students are challenged to verify the truth and sort out the materials that are valuable,’ Qian said. ‘Through this method, they learn how to turn journalism history into personal narratives. In the end, they get a better idea of the context around important historical points.’

Both national and local newspapers are being used for the project, which also draws on video and audio recordings. Microfilm archives at The University of Hong Kong library have been used, and some contributors have traveled back to their hometowns to search the archives of local newspapers.

birthday papers 1

Tweets from Mao: ‘I’m a Party member and I’m a citizen. [Referring to Deng Xiaoping] You don’t allow me to participate in the Party conference and that is a violation of Party rules. [Referring to Liu Shaoqi] You don’t allow me to speak and that is a violation of the Constitution.’

When revisiting press coverage from the era, power struggles, foreign policy themes and the harsh realities of events such as the Great Famine of 1959–61, can clearly be seen. Other papers deal with ‘softer’ news: for example, exploring the kind of films that were being watched at the time, and also offering an insight into the lives of actors and actresses, some of whom suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution.

One of the most popular papers so far has been that of current Master of Journalism student Lei Feifei, who imagined what Mao would have ‘tweeted’ before and during the Cultural Revolution. References and links to her article initially appeared on social media inside mainland China, but have since been removed by the government censors.

Click here to visit the Project’s Facebook group, or here for its Medium page.

(Feature image: People’s Daily front page, 1 January 1967)