Document of the Month: A PRC History Series by Michael Schoenhals

Aminda Smith's picture

“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.

February 2014

When Form Is Content: A 1954 CCP Document about the Design of Documents


(click on the title above to view the full document)


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.

This document is an absolute delight. Of course, we all see the similarity in layout to Repbulican administrative documents and echoes of Qing documents.

For teaching the comparison, there is a handy language text book compiled by Kirby, Lin, and Shih, State and Economy in Republican China (2001)—this document can be read profitably in conjunction with several of the documents in that text book (which helpfully include photocopies of originals with similar layout). Ultimately, we will look for a similar textbook on PRC documents featuring this document.                Tim Cheek

Tim's insightful comment made me think of possibilities for extending the space of comparison. It would be interesting, for example in a grad seminar, to start with this document and similar examples of bureaucratic production in the past (Qing and Republican) but then add examples from other bureaucracies. And not just the socialist ones.
Without being too Weberian about this, it might be useful to trace how and how much the PRC functioned as a bureaucratic regime, how that was part and parcel of being "modern" (abused word, I know), and how this effort structered the language, the discourse and the practices in ways similar of different from other modern bureaucracies. Huge questions, obviously, but, I think, even more relevant given the supposedly anti-bureaucratic character that Maoism embodied.

As Michael said, form is content with official Chinese documents. I found the following handbook very helpful:

黄存勋,刘文杰,雷荣广: 档案文献学 (高等学校教材)

成都:四川大学出版社, 1988.

This is mostly a handbook for archivists with information on archival work and its aims and methods, and on conventions of official writing in different time periods. Chapter 13 covers the PRC. It contains information on which formats were permitted at different times: for example, from 1951 to 1957, all official communication had to belong to one of the following categories: 1. 报告、签报,2. 命令, 3. 指示, 4. 批复, 5. 通报、通知, 6. 布告、公告, 7 公函、便函。It also contains information on text direction (vertical until 1955, horizontal since then), the use of Arabic versus Chinese numbers, the use of headers and footers, pre-printed forms; on the abolition of honorifics and self-deprecating formulas; on the correct use of ellipses (等语, 等情 or ...) etc.



Jacob’s comment is very valuable, and the book on archival science he is referring to is clearly a “must have” item. I have myself found that reference- and textbooks produced in China for those who studied to become secretaries (“从事文秘工作的干部”) in the still very much pen-and-paper-centric era of the early 1980s can be goldmines of information for us who today are interested in the norms and standards shaping Maoist era “officialese.” This is because, what tended to happen when “reform” was only just getting under way was that, in the absence of politically cite-able texts of more recent vintage, authors and compilers of textbooks had to fall back upon what they had handy from the 1949–1966 era. This in turn meant that books like 《文书学参考资料》by 松世勤(北京:中央广播电视大学出版社,1984年)came to include many texts that actually described the rhetorical, orthographic, discursive – you name it – conventions that a wordsmith back in the pre-Cultural Revolution years was expected to be au fait with. Reprinted here we find, for example, early annotated lists of 常用公文词语汇释, the State Council General Office’s 关于对公文名称和体式问题的几点意见(稿)from 1957, Hu Qiaomu’s famous speech at an informal conference on document writing methods (4 March 1958), and much more. By the late 1980s, texts such as these had finally been superseded by more recent up-to-date ones in the textbooks being published. Which, I guess, is why it makes sense for the older text to have migrated over to books like Jacob’s on archives and repositories of what was now safely part of the past…

I'm likewise intrigued by the origins, so to speak, of document form.  Having just spent a few weeks with the KMT files in the Hoover Institution library and archives this summer, followed an even more recent survey of 1949-1953 上海市军事管制委员会文化教育管理委员会 files, one immediate parallel between the two "parties of a new type" is that internal communications within both bureaucratic structures use the same "...字...号" log number format.  I'm not sure what the Qing/early Republican parallels would be, but surely there are additional points of comparison to be gleaned from a careful study of other documents as well,  政府公报 and 国务院公报, for instance.  

It's possible, I suppose, to return to the question of how much post-1949 document production followed the Soviet example and how much followed  from other modes of secretarial and 政党 (following Julia Strauss) training, and/or how much was the product of the late Qing and early Republican educational system.  

A more open-ended question would be, perhaps: what models and sources of organizational, bureaucratic experience can be detected in the form of the post-1949 party-state, which is very much the context for the documents that we're discussing?  Surely the Soviet Union looms large here.  Are there other possible answers?