“What is a document?” If we ask Google, we discover that this question has been asked some 1.24 million times in German already. In English, there are already in excess of 153 million texts “out there” that might provide an answer, given that they contain the phrase “A document is…”. When I checked, I found to my surprise that one relevant internet text that does not is the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s Terms & Definitions of Interest. It does not define “document” – merely “document exploitation,” “document and media exploitation,” and “Harmony.” As a historian, my editorial policy here at Document of the Month will be to adopt a similar robust Don’t Ask Don’t Tell-position with respect to “What is a document?” If you see it scanned and commented on here, it’s a document.
Document of the Month is curated by Michael Schoenhals.
When Form Is Content: A 1954 CCP Document about the Design of Documents
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Don’t we just love to translate the names of Chinese bureaucratic texts like this one in our footnotes? A circular about implementing a circular concerning yet another circular! And here the fun does not even end there: the final circular turns out to be a circular about the correct design of… even more circulars! Who on earth wants to read this, the novice historian just might ask? What’s the point? Well, there are a number that could be made, but they all boil down to one thing: if we aren’t familiar with the historical standards meant to regulate the form of official communications, we simply will not be able to fully appreciate crucial aspects of their content. This particular text is from 1954, when official documents were written vertically across the page, from right to left. When that changed a few years later, a new notification would have been issued explaining what official documents should henceforth look like. In due course, over time, new regulatory standards would again have replaced earlier ones. Were those standards always adhered to? No, but most of the time they were and it is with the help of circulars like this one that we are able to state with confidence to what extent…
The source of this document is a Nanjing flea market, where it was purchased in the late 1990s by a Swedish liuxuesheng.