“Speaking with witnesses is the most fascinating aspect of my research” – 5in10 with Anja Blanke

Anja Blanke is a scholar of 20th-century Chinese history, specializing in the history and memories of campaigns during the Mao era, such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957-58) or the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). She is writing her dissertation on the politics of memory of the Anti-Rightist Campaign. During the last three years, she conducted research in China, at Stanford University, and she was a visiting researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Since 2016, she has been a research associate at the department for History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, working on an edited volume on 1950s China.

What was your motivation to study modern Chinese history?

Before I started to study China Studies, I knew hardly anything about China. At the time when I graduated from high school (2006), young people perceived China as an upcoming business nation. They associated China with business and money rather than with its fascinating history. We learned nothing about China at school and our image of China was primarily shaped by the German media, which reported mainly about Chinese-German economic relations. I knew early on that I would choose a study program in the field of history and cultural studies. The decision to study China Studies was intuitive, I did not know what to expect and simply looked forward to learning more about this fascinating country. During the first semester break I travelled to China for the first time and a few days after arriving in Beijing I knew that my decision to study China Studies was right. During this trip I have developed my fascination for modern Chinese history. I think this was triggered by the constant omnipresence of Mao Zedong’s portrait in Beijing, which, at first glance, seemed so contradictory to political and social developments in post-Mao China. These apparent contradictions made China and its history so fascinating to me and this fascination for modern Chinese history became a passion in the course of the years.

What do you research and which questions guide your research?

I am interested in Mao’s China and the history of the Communist Party. My dissertation is on the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 and 1958 and its official and unofficial historical narratives. The Anti-Rightist Campaign was one of the great tragedies in the early years of the People’s Republic of China (founded in 1949), during which not less than 550,000 intellectuals were publicly humiliated, imprisoned or persecuted. Most of the so-called rightists spent more than twenty years in the forced labor system (called laogai) for their so-called ’re-education through labor’ under atrocious conditions. Many died of hunger and exhaustion, especially during the Great Chinese Famine (1959-61). Until today the official line has proclaimed that the initial, narrow version of the Anti-Rightist Campaign was necessary to stamp out a threat to the Communist Party. Only the campaign’s extent is regarded as a mistake. Even though the Party later acknowledged that 99.99 % of the so-called rightists had been wrongly labelled and only a few were not rehabilitated, there have never been attempts to publicly process these ’mistakes’. There are still no official memorial sites or museums commemorating the victims. However, witnesses and family members of the victims demand the campaign’s revision as well as compensation for victims. They argue that there will be no social progress without a serious reassessment of the past. My dissertation examines how unofficial historiography by witnesses, victims, but also by scholars, has been shaping China’s collective memory and challenging the official historiography.

How is it to do research in China? 

Challenging and fascinating. The first challenge is undoubtedly the language. But even with strong language skills it can be challenging to understand various dialects. It can also be difficult to decipher handwritten archive materials and sometimes even typescript documents. In the 1950s and 1960s China introduced simplified characters by reducing the number of strokes in order to encourage literacy. This reform was carried out in different phases and has differed in its implementation in some regions. One still can find documents from the 1950s or 1960s with characters that have been used only briefly. The interpretation of such characters can be extremely difficult. Secondly, the possibilities to do research in the PRC are constantly changing, depending on the current political situation. The Communist Party has been in an ongoing struggle for legitimacy since the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. This is accompanied by CCP’s struggle for the power of interpretation of its own past.  Since the Party’s history serves as an important source of legitimacy, they have been trying to avoid publicly discussing sensitive events such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square Massacre. This has intensified since Xi Jinping’s takeover in 2012 and has led to massive crackdowns on academic freedom at Chinese universities and research institutions. Access to archives and research data is becoming increasingly difficult. This is why speaking with witnesses, especially with those who were involved in political turmoil in China in the 1950s and 1960s, is for me the most fascinating aspect of my research. Encounters like these offer a different look not only at China’s past, but they also allow a clearer understanding of current social and political developments in the PRC.

What are the current challenges for the academic exchange with the Chinese historians?

Currently, Chinese authorities are sanctioning ‘western ideas’ and the discussion of the Communist Party’s ‘historical mistakes’ at Chinese universities and research institutions. Chinese scholars are encouraged to promote socialist values and help turn Chinese universities into ‘strongholds of the Party’s leadership’. These developments make an academic exchange between Chinese and Western scholars increasingly difficult. Currently, we note with deep concern that Chinese historians are increasingly withdrawing from international conferences and workshops that discuss ’sensitive topics’. Chinese authorities also prohibit scholars from taking part in such academic events. Sometimes it is still not clear what Chinese scholars are allowed to do. This has created great uncertainties for interaction with Chinese scholars, because we do not want to put them at risk of losing their university positions. We need to develop ideas to deal with present circumstances. A professional exchange between colleagues from China and Western countries is currently particularly important for both sides. As a Chinese professor recently noted in a private discussion, “the worst thing to do now would be to do nothing”.

How do you deal with the political challenges in your exchange and research?

I increasingly use unofficial channels and private contacts, which I have built up over the last few years. My research activities benefit from the fortunate fact that I am integrated in a large network of internationally outstanding scholars. Regarding the organisation of workshops or conferences, we have just begun to develop (unofficial) strategies to face these new challenges. Scholars, for example, have to be very careful in communication. The best method seems to be to keep event descriptions vague and to avoid certain wordings. The situation is quite new for everyone in the post-Mao era, at least to this extent, and we still lack experience in facing these new challenges. Western research institutions bear a special responsibility in implementing common strategies and programs as well as in terms of ensuring accessibility of data and research material beyond borders of universities and countries.


Citation: “Speaking with witnesses is the most fascinating aspect of my research” – 5in10 with Anja Blanke, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.11.18, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/5443.


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