Doing Oral History in the PRC


Finding and Communicating with Oral Historical Informants in the PRC

Since the 1980s, a quiet revolution has been brewing in the field of Chinese studies.  It started when scholars like David Faure and Emily Honig talked to Jiangsu migrants about work and identity, and when Chinese writers, such as Liao Yiwu and Feng Jicai, collected stories about ordinary indignities in Chengdu and Ningbo.  These oral histories juxtaposed interviews with archival data, using personal memories to supplement and even contradict official narratives.  The studies’ wealth of township and district-level data have transformed our conception of twentieth-century China, as well as the methodological boundaries of Chinese historical research.

Some informants relaxing near Lake Tai, China

I share the interest in integrating oral interviews into archival research, and have compiled the following as an introduction to doing so in the People’s Republic of China.  My list discusses: Finding Interviewees, Doing Interviews and Collecting Documents, and Integrating Interviews with Collected Documents – some of the things that I wish I knew when I started in 2006.  These sections are by no means complete.  In fact, I write with the hope that those with more experience might share their experiences in this post’s comments section, for which I, at least, would be grateful.

Finding Interviewees

I started searching for informants in my first year of graduate school, attending conferences and professional functions with visiting faculty from the PRC.  I offered to help Chinese professors navigate English-language presentations, as well as get around libraries, find grocery stores, and hunt for housing in the United States.  In return, I asked if they could introduce me to colleagues and graduate students in China.  I got cards made with my full Chinese contact information, university affiliation, and handed cards out to everyone I met.  On the back of each card, I wrote a short note that described the type of information I was looking for (by hand).  I was up front about what I needed – I wanted to meet and interview people who knew about the nationwide program to appropriate art during the Maoist years.  Institutional Review Board (IRB) training taught me to let my interviewees know that they had the option of remaining anonymous, and that I was going to use their testimony in research that may be published in the future.  Trial and error taught me to keep my handwriting big and clear, so older informants could read it easily.

My faculty contacts were extraordinary generous.  They put me in touch with retired employees at the Shanghai Museum, some of whom were kind enough to grant interviews.  I also got introduced to several journalists who had worked the arts and culture beat since the 1950s.  These reporters introduced me to art dealers, auctioneers, and more retired museum employees – many of whom had already been interviewed by the journalists, and were willing to answer further questions from me.  In return, I translated English language articles for my new journalist and graduate student friends, and helped them get documents and books from outside China.  I also kept token treats on hand at all times, as a way to get to know people.  Every time I met a new informant, or someone who might know an informant, I shared a beer, some cookies, or a savory bite with them.  I carried a lot of chocolate around, and found that older informants liked having a piece or two with tea.

Getting a good recording device improved my efficiency.  My first interviews were recorded with the built-in microphone on my laptop, but finding electrical outlets and the laptop’s sheer bulkiness made work difficult.  I got a recording pen from the electronics mall near Fudan University.  It offered an easy user interface and long battery life, in addition to being light and easy to recharge.  The pen allowed me to record conversations at any time.  Having a portable digital copy of all my interviews also made transcribing easier.

An informant, showing me a reflecting bronze mirror whilst talking into my recording pen (on table)

Asking informants about opportunities to meet other informants also helped.  One revealed that lots of cultural industry work units (danwei) ran monthly pension days for their retirees.  It’s essentially a combination of payday and socialization party.  The danwei reserved a room, retirees gathered there to pick up pension checks and submit hospital and prescription drug receipts for reimbursement.  Many used the opportunity to catch up: chat with former colleagues and mill about the cafeteria.  Pension day was also when retired cadres held their monthly Communist party meetings – it was an opportunity to see everyone, in one place.  I asked the informant if I could attend pension day.  He said sure.  I brought my cards, camera, and recording pen, and went to every meeting for the next year and a half.  I did my best to blend in and talk to everyone present – with the hope of getting interviews.  After a few months, my informants quintupled.

Doing Interviews and Collecting Documents

Here are the four things I wish I knew before I started interviewing two to four people a week.

Take lots of photos.  Photograph where informants live, what they look like, their family photo albums, everything that can add texture to the book chapters that their testimonies will make possible.  Ask permission before you started snapping away, and give the informants a copy of the image they want.  That gives you an excuse to go back and ask more questions.  I thought I took a lot pictures during fieldwork, but the things that I thought were crucial then – documents and old photographs – were only part of the story that came out in the interviews themselves.  It’s worth the money to invest in an external hard drive and snap as many pictures as you can bring home.

Be comfortable with and upfront about your ignorance.  On an early interview, my informant casually said something like “We lived near where the highway is, do you know that cluster of complexes?”  I had no idea and said “What highway”?  My informant meant the main highway in Shanghai and was flabbergasted that I didn’t know where it was.  She said “Are you stupid?  It’s been there forever!”  I felt intensely embarrassed.  I should have replied, I haven’t lived in China for decades and spent two hours looking for your apartment because I got off at the wrong bus stop.  It was an opportunity to let my informant know how valuable her knowledge was, but I didn’t know to take the opportunity.  If I had, it would have sped up our “getting to know and trust you” time by several months.

Bring informants documents and photos.  Interviewees remember select events, and will recall more with contextual aids.  Contextual aids also show your investment in the project, which encourages informants to invest in you.  My first few interviews were eight-hour sessions where I asked informants about every aspect of their lives from birth to retirement, but I didn’t get too far beneath the surface.  I got anecdotes about the kinds of art that they heard got confiscated instead of what they seized themselves.  When I brought accounts and ledgers from the Shanghai Museum to my informants, however, they opened up.  Sometimes, my informants surprised me by revealing that they wrote the reports, and showed me original unedited drafts and related documents that they had kept for personal reasons.  They even asked for copies of the reports I brought as a souvenir.  One informant shared his entire stock of old Shanghai Museum files, photographs, newspaper clippings, and training files in exchange for a few copies of the reports I brought him.  If you have a document that has your informant’s name on it, bring it – they’ll definitely want to see that.

One informant’s cache of identification manuals for excavated artifacts

Lastly, learn to speak as much of the local dialect as possible.  Unless my informants had extensive work histories in Beijing, which most of them did not, they were not comfortable speaking putonghua (the so-called common language).  People from Shanghai speak Shanghainese.  Suzhou residents prefer the Suzhou dialect.  Getting around Hong Kong would have been difficult without my Cantonese language tapes.  Informants are more likely to use slang, be direct, and share more in the language in which they are comfortable.  To the generation of people past age sixty, putonghua is anything but common. It is that unusual language that the strict enforcement of new standards and conduct superimposed on their workplace.  I spoke to my informants, their co-workers, and their families in as much local dialect as I could.  When I found myself struggling to express myself, we mixed local dialect with Mandarin and laughed about how difficult the dialects were.  One informant even offered to teach me the Cantonese jargon that all the Shanghai art dealers who traveled to Hong Kong used to hawk antiquities after 1956, which was invaluable.  The lessons helped me identify information that I would never have found otherwise in guild and police records.

Integrating Interviews with Collected Documents

Everybody lies, even on interviews.  Documents, statistics, and official reports also lie, however.  It’s worth taking the time to ask around, check unusual information with other interviewees, as well as compare archival documents and danwei ledgers with individual testimony.  This is more than responsible fact checking; it’s fact hunting.

Sometimes, the most bizarre stories turn out to be true.  Here’s an example:  One of the most fascinating things my informants told me was that during the Cultural Revolution, confiscated antiquities were sold overseas for profit by the state.  Museum employees and art dealers alike talked about identifying art objects that were both legal for export, and worth selling.  I believed my informants because so many said so independently of each other, but couldn’t find proof.

Then, about two years into my research, I met a British art dealer who lived in Hong Kong during the 1970s.  I mentioned the sale of Cultural Revolution confiscations and he heartily concurred.  He then mentioned that the PRC also made confiscation sale catalogs and he kept copies of some at home.  I got really excited.  We visited his estate and made copies of the catalogs – which the dealer had cut up and used for his own records.  Those documents, juxtaposed with oral interviews, made up one entire chapter.  The documents also brought me back to Shanghai, where I showed museum and art market employees the catalogs, asked more questions, and got more information.  This method of doing Chinese history: juxtaposing interviews with archival documents, talking in local dialects, and establishing collaborative relationships with interviewees, opened doors that I never even knew existed.  I believe, and hope others agree, that this method of fact finding will illuminate facets of the Maoist years that have otherwise been written off as inaccessible.

Di Yin Lu
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow
Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
National Gallery of Art

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

  1. Brilliant! Just wondefully useful and valuable! My hat off to you (and to Dissertation Reviews) for publishing this and sharing with the rest of us!

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