Ian Johnson
Ian Johnson

An almost forgotten episode under Communist rule was the Third Front, an 200 billion Renminbi effort to move from 1964 much of the economic power to China´s inland. Journalist Ian Johnson with historian Covell Meyskens his work on an upcoming monography and his weblog with 5,000+ pictures for the New York Times.

Ian Johnson:

How did this lead to your blog?

I was looking for pictures of the Third Front. As a social historian, you try to imagine a time period — the physical environment, the social norms, the daily routines, the cultural values, the principal social groups, the areas of conflict. Having photos helps to stimulate the historical imagination.

Where are the images from?

They’re almost all from the internet. Through persistent digital digging, I have uncovered all sorts of stuff, such as this rare photo of peasants eating leaves during the Great Leap Forward. A lot of the images come from Sina blogs and other forums where people post photos and paintings. A number of older people in China collect images, put them online and use them as illustrations for their memoirs or lay histories of Maoist China.

I have also put up paintings, which mainly come from auction websites. The paintings are especially interesting, because everyone knows Maoist propaganda, but there’s also quite a bit of art which is much less didactic. Artists produced paintings, even during the Cultural Revolution, and they weren’t just painting Mao portraits or Red Guards. They painted trees,industrial projects, fishing boats, gardens, birds. One particularly striking genre of drawing is comics, such as these Great Leap Forward food cartoons.


A father taking a walk with his children, 1962. CreditEveryday Life in Mao’s China

What are some of the especially telling photos?

A lot depict everyday activities, like eating a meal or window shopping. Photos also show people engaging in what might seem like normal activities, like buying fruit in Beijing, but doing so during the height of the Great Leap famine, or college students walking around Beihai Park, but doing so in 1968, during a rather violent period of the Cultural Revolution.

These sorts of images provide a different window onto what life was like for some people. We often hear about people’s lives which were destroyed by political oppression, but daily life was more nuanced. Political campaigns coursed through people’s lives, but they also engaged in more mundane activities, like taking their kids to the park, escorting kids to school, going to the movies or getting married.

Some scholars debate whether it’s appropriate to call the Maoist period “totalitarian.” What do you think?

I tend to not use the word totalitarianism. It is one of those words, like fascism, that seems to have a lot of explanatory power but can easily conceal as much as it reveals, especially since it tends to have a strong moral content and is frequently deployed to discredit whatever you’re talking about.

More in the New York Times.

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