Librarians Create Oral History Collection Focusing on China's Cultural Revolution

Haihui Zhang in libraryA collection of 10-minute films — illuminating a watershed 10-year period in China — preserves personal stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, adding new, individual perspectives on the history of the era.

“It’s important to hear from these people now,” said Haihui Zhang, who is spearheading The CR/10 Project, named for the Cultural Revolution and the 10-minute, 10-year aspect of the project. “Many of them who lived through it are in their 70s or 80s. Many have passed away.”

Zhang, head of Pitt’s East Asian Library, and a team of librarians and staff at Pitt’s University Library System have created a database of filmed oral histories of people who lived or people whose parents lived through the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. The goal, said Zhang, is to present a variety of memories of the same historical incident — views not necessarily from scholars or politicians, but from the common person.

Film still from oral history collection. Man born in 1950s China sitting in a red chair.The revolution — a class struggle during which types of knowledge tied to Western imperialism came under attack — was an attempt by Chairman Mao Zedong to protect the Communist Party’s purity and prevent capitalism’s return to China. Universities and schools were forced to close and books were destroyed if they did not comply with official propaganda. Early on, teachers and intellectuals were humiliated in public, beaten and tortured. More than 1.5 million people were killed.

Since 2016, the 40th anniversary of the end of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang had been mulling over how the library might preserve personal recollections about the period. As someone who lived through that complex and harrowing time as a teenager in Beijing, China, she felt that video recordings of common citizens, culminating in an oral history collection, would be the best way to both archive the information and give students the chance to reflect on the concept that history is complicated.

“A person’s memory varies according to his or her geographic location, age, profession, family background and other factors,” she said.

Video still from oral history collection. Woman born in 1990s China seated.Zhang, who came to the United States in 1990, conducts many of the interviews herself, most of them in her own Pitt office, using a small pocket video camera.

She started off by interviewing people she knew. As word of mouth spread about CR/10, she found more participants. Some were visiting the United States and some live here permanently. There are 32 10-minute interviews on the site now, and 36 more will be uploaded throughout February. They are all in Chinese, with English subtitles, and participants range in age from 24 to 89. She stressed that the University Library System doesn’t advocate a particular point of view.

“We interview ordinary people at random, regardless of their opinion on the topic,” she said.

Zhang said some of what she saw and heard came as a surprise.

Some subjects cried. Others stopped midway through their interview and asked to start again. Some, still fearful about discussing such a sensitive topic, asked to be filmed facing away from the camera. One person spoke for three hours.

Video still from oral history collection. Man born in 1960s China sitting in front of a bookshel.fBenno Weiner, assistant professor of Chinese history at Carnegie Mellon University, heard about the project and invited Zhang to conduct a presentation for a class on the Cultural Revolution.

“Sometimes participants reflect on incidents of violence,” he said, “but sometimes they spend their 10 minutes recalling surprisingly quotidian events, the type of details of lived experience that rarely find their way into history books.”

As for Zhang, she is especially proud of the expertise within the University Library System that brought the project to fruition. She or a volunteer conducts the interview; then, a team member translates it to English. Subtitles are created. Descriptive information is added, such as date, time and place of interview, region the interviewee is from and other metadata. Then, the interview is archived and uploaded.

“To create this type of worldwide, open-access database with a high academic value, one needs the resources a university library can provide,” she said.

In late March, Zhang will take part in a roundtable discussion on CR/10 for scholars and educators who will attend the annual conference for the Association for Asian Studies in Washington, D.C. Zhang views the video project as a model for other libraries, applicable to different incidents, countries, eras or cultures.

Weiner said it’s the fact that participants are reflecting on the past that provides CR/10’s greatest potential.

“Students not only have the opportunity to learn about the Cultural Revolution itself, but just as importantly, to reflect on issues of historical and social memory – how we use retrospective accounts to reconstruct the past and how memory of the past helps construct our present,” he said.

Video still from oral history archive. Man borrn in 1950s China sitting in front of a tan wall.