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Reading under the Revolution

Mao Zedong dictated to the people what they were to read – but the masses discovered forbidden literature

Freiburg, Nov 28, 2017

Reading under the Revolution

Foto: Yassine Laaroussi/Unsplash

No, the China was not a literary wasteland during the Cultural Revolution. Even if it seems so at first. Lena Henningsen, assistant professor at the Institute of Chinese Studies, aims to clear up misunderstandings like this by finding out about reading habits in the People's Republic of China from the 1940s to the present day. The 39 year old Chinese Studies expert aims to find out who read what, when, where, and under what conditions, and how individuals and the society were changed by reading. Henningsen has received a European Research Council grant of 1.5 million euros for her project. The University of Freiburg is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the ERC Grants scheme and the University’s 50 Grant winners with a look at some selected projects. In a special series, we present ten such winners.

Required reading: Lena Henningsen plans to investigate popular literature and non-literature, from non-fiction through to text messages. Photo: Yassine Laaroussi/Unsplash


China in the 1960s: Mao is in power and via the party cadre dictates to the people what they should read. In what were known as reading and study groups, which met regularly both in cities and in the country, people read what the Communist Party proscribed as reading matter; often, it was the latest proclamation by the great Chairman Mao. However, not all participants at the reading groups obeyed the propaganda, Henningsen says. The peasants, for instance, took the opportunity for a welcome nap.

But during the Cultural Revolution people didn’t read just at official study meetings. Above all, it was young intellectuals who had been sent to the countryside for reeducation who secretly studied quite different things from party literature. “They read many Western texts, as well as banned Chinese literature,” Henningsen adds. Books were often distributed via the children of party officials - because only the cadre was allowed to read anything other than party propaganda. They sometimes took excerpts of the most important things and passed these notes around their circle of friends. All this led to an unofficial body of literature even before Mao’s death in 1976. As early as the late 1960s, what was known as scar literature arose, dealing with the trauma of the Cultural Revolution; a parallel literary development was “misty,” or obscure, poetry.

Reveal and understand

Henningsen speaks with infectious enthusiasm. She wants to know what really went on. She and her team will be working through a large volume of autobiographical, anthropological, historical, and literary sources - some of which must still be unearthed from local archives. Interviews with contemporary eyewitnesses will round out the picture. With this intense research, Henningsen aims to discover, reveal - and understand those reading habits. Above all - the effects of literature in Chinese society.

Bestselling works like “The Catcher in the Rye” and “On the Road” showed an entire generation that individuality is not a bad thing, and it’s something you can revel in, says Lena Henningsen. Photo: Thomas Kunz


Bestselling works like “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger and “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac were “eye openers” in the 1970s, she says. “They showed an entire generation that individuality is not a bad thing, and it’s something you can revel in,” Henningsen adds. That changes people. But formal literature is only one aspect. The researchers are also investigating popular literature and non-literature, from non-fiction through to text messages. During Mao’s reign the state system of book distribution dictated what was to be popular, but today popularity is measured on a commercial book market - in which censorship and government control still play an important role. But parallel to that, there is a black market which operates because the forbidden is always interesting - and also because the official book market is inefficient and fails to make enough books available, Henningsen reports.

All these areas and the people involved in them will be the focus of Henningsen and her team’s research. Unlike in the West, reading habits in China are formed by a communist state, which under Mao in particular sought to use cultural policy to reform its citizens. In addition, Henningsen explains, there is a centralized bureaucracy, which often massively regulates production, distribution, and access to literature. “At the end of the project we want to know what reading forms and habits were the exception and which were typical of the time.”

Stephanie Streif